Opinion

One-to-one: just doing what's right

20 March 2020

Meet another of your new vice-presidents… councillor Sara Rowbotham talks to Aviva Attias about her career twists and turns – and her future plans.

Sara Rowbotham is currently Labour councillor for North Middleton, in Rochdale Borough Council, where she’s deputy leader and portfolio holder for health and wellbeing. Campaigning for what’s right has always been ‘part and parcel’ of her life – her mum and dad were community and political activists, although she only got into politics professionally in 2015.

Before that, she helped bring about change via different routes. At 18, she was one of the youngest pregnancy councillors working for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, supporting women requesting termination of pregnancy at a time when there was a lot of campaigning against it. She later worked with the homeless.

After a break to see the world, she trained as a social worker at about 26, and worked in sexual health. In 2003, she was delighted with the opportunity to create her own team. ‘[Then prime minister] Tony Blair decided there was a teenage pregnancy crisis, so money was available for coordinators to address the teen conception rate,’ says Sara.

She saw little value in just dishing out contraception, so convinced Rochdale Primary Care Trust of the need to ‘work with young people on a one-to-one basis to support them in making better decisions around sexual health’. Sara secured her team of ‘fearless youth workers who knew the kids and the language’, and fine-tuned their knowledge on the complexities of young people’s sexual health. The rest is history.

It was her team, with Sara firmly at the helm, that uncovered what became known as the Rochdale grooming gang scandal. Sara was instrumental in exposing the multiple cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, her relentless efforts resulting in convictions that are still going on today.    

Chatting to Sara, I immediately sense her warmth, zest for life and total commitment to helping those in need. Having devoted over a decade of her life to making the authorities listen and giving a voice to the voiceless, she’s clearly got that special something.  

How it unfolded

Sara’s team soon became known as the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team, with Sara as the coordinator. During their 13 years together ‘we discovered that young people were being sexually exploited, and over that time we made over 200 referrals to children’s social care and Greater Manchester police.

‘I followed my child protection procedures because I believed young people were at risk of significant harm,’ says Sara. But it turned out those young people effectively fell between two statuary services. ‘Children’s social care said: “This child is not being neglected by their parents - they’re doing their best to look after them, they’re not being abused by a relative so it’s stranger abuse, and the police need to deal with that.”

‘But the police would say: “You need to bring me a victim who will say they’ve been raped or abused, is credible for court, plus hygienic evidence – else we don’t have a role.”’

Sara’s child protection referrals became increasingly more articulate. ‘I was very clearly saying things like, “this child is being poisoned by drugs and alcohol, violently manipulated, coerced into sexual activity without their consent, is vulnerable to HIV infection and other STIs – and the parents aren’t able to protect them.”’

Still there was no follow-up. ‘Sometimes my referral triggered a response – but the social worker would assess the parents, without necessarily meeting the child. It went on like this till around 2011.’

A breakthrough

A new police officer at the public protection unit agreed to do some disruption activity on known perpetrators, explains Sara, known because of information Sara had given the police. ‘The idea was to let the fellows know we were onto them by knocking on their door. We weren’t anticipating arrests, though the police agreed to interview any perpetrators they brought in.’  

The police weren’t able to charge for actual crimes committed, Sara explains, but did charge for offences such as conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child. ‘We had the first successful trafficking case in the UK in 2012,’ she says. ‘One of the men was trafficking a child from one street to another street by car for sexual activity.’

While Greater Manchester Police and the local authority said ‘they were going to create a new team to sit in the police station to do the exploitation work’, there was an unwelcome outcome, too. ‘They both said: “We’re going to draw a line under anything that’s happened before, we’ve learned our lesson,”’ recalls Sara. ‘They refused to do an independent Serious Case Review and stopped inviting me to meetings.’

So Sara ended up at the MP Simon Danczuk’s office. ‘He believed me. The relief that the man in power believed what I said was huge. And I know the relief I felt is tiny in comparison to what it must be like when a child discloses sexual abuse and they’re believed.’

‘Simon got in touch with then home secretary Theresa May, who got in touch with the prime minister at the time, David Cameron. He contacted MP Keith Vaz, who was chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee looking at on-street grooming.’ Sara was given a slot by Keith to give evidence. ‘I was supposed to be on for 20 minutes, but was on for 40. Keith sent Ofsted to Rochdale the morning after.’

The impact

‘Over a six-week period, people publicly resigned, were sacked, or were marched out of their offices – including the independent chair of the Safeguarding Children Board.

‘The whole landscape changed in Rochdale, but they still didn’t involve me in discussions,’ reveals Sara. It took probably another 18 months before they looked at the cases I’d referred.

‘I complained to the Greater Manchester mayor as they still weren’t doing an independent Serious Case Review. Hence they started to look at the cases again. We’re on our ninth court case now, with sentencing more in relation to the offending – on average between 13 and 16 years.’

There was organisational change around sexual health where Sara worked, and ‘my job wasn’t part of the new structure. So in 2014 I was made redundant’.

Surely the whole period had an effect on Sara? ‘I was diagnosed with PTSD afterwards, which manifested itself in eating and drinking too much.

‘I came back to live with my mum as I wasn’t coping - a big thing when you’re nearly 50 and you need your mum to look after you. When my mum later became poorly, those roles were reversed and I looked after her.’

As for her professional life? ‘The focus I’d had for my future career had been blown out of the water. So in 2015 I put myself forward to become a local councillor. It just seemed the right thing to do; my mum was a local councillor, and politics was absolutely her life, as it was for my dad. They were proper old-school, dragging us kids on marches!’ Sara was voted in. 

Recognition

In 2017, a BBC Three drama Three girls was broadcast based on the Rochdale scandal. Sara describes it as ‘all our truths’. She received some 14,000 emails from viewers, many of whom were being or had been abused. ‘The BBC really quickly put a big package of care around the drama, and dealt with the majority of my emails. It was overwhelming.’

When she won a Special Recognition prize at the NHS Heroes Awards in 2018, she was ‘chuffed to bits to be fair. You always think other winners are more worthy than you.’ The trophy is on her mantle piece, but she doesn’t see the convictions as her greatest career achievement.

‘Long before the Rochdale crisis role, my team organised for women wanting to terminate their pregnancy to dial just one number to gain access to all providers – coordinating all of that felt like a big success. ‘I know the successes I’ve had in relation to child sexual exploitation, but I somehow feel like I’m separate to it,’ she says. ‘Maybe I have to think that every area in the country now has a dedicated sexual child exploitation unit, and there are social workers and police officers all over the country paying attention to it – but that has more to do with the young people than it did with me.’

On the grooming gang convictions she says: ‘Justice is a funny thing for me. You have to think – those paedophiles are no longer able to commit crimes. But making those young people go through what happened in a court setting, with the most intimate and horrific stuff, in front of the person who did it to you – that doesn’t feel like justice for me.’

A new focus

As a local councillor, Sara has a big portfolio for health and wellbeing including being ‘a board member on the integrated commissioning board and part of the CCG board. Public health is also in my portfolio as is public protection (such as environmental health).’

Does she have a typical day now? ‘Every day is really different. At the moment I’m working on the clean air agenda and climate change. This week, I’m trying to stop parents from leaving their engines running at the school gates – sounds simple, but it involves the police, head teacher, governors, pupils and their parents.’

Looking forward, what does her future hold? ‘I’m really enjoying the variety of my current role, and have other projects on the horizon too that I hope will make a big difference. One is with the Children’s Commissioner on technology.’

‘The relief that a man in power believed me was huge, but tiny in comparison to what it must be like when a child discloses sexual abuse’

Guiding lights

Who’s been her own inspiration in her career? ‘My mum [who sadly passed away in 2016]. The women in my family have always had principles, values and morals, understanding right and wrong.  

‘When she and my dad went on marches and rallies, it was all about the underdog, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. Something my mum and dad thought they had a responsibility to do something about.’ Sara gives an example: ‘During the miners’ strike my dad, an engineer, was out of work for eight years. We were proper poor – yet my mum gave her last pennies to the wife of a striking miner.’

What advice does Sara have for community practitioners, especially given the falling numbers and budget cuts? ‘Look after yourself first. A bit like putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. Else you’ll be ineffective for anyone you’re trying to care for. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and remind yourself why you came into your role – your desire to help.’

In her role as honorary vice-president of Unite-CPHVA, she says: ‘I’m more than happy to advocate on behalf of CPs, and with vigour, and to really make sure their voices are heard. When ministers talk publicly about the NHS, rarely do they mean all the people working in the community. So anywhere I’m needed, I’ll be there.’


About Sara
  • ‘I’m not interested in the mundane. I’m interested in society and people, the right and wrong.’ 
  • Sara’s biggest lesson learned? ‘The value in finding your allies – your critical friend who will trust and believe you, but still ask the difficult questions to help you.’
  • Sara’s inner circle offer her the ultimate down-time. ‘I feel most relaxed when I’m with my crew – a really nice core set of friends I’ve known for a long time from work.’
  • To unwind, Sara also enjoys walking her dachshund. ‘She’s got little legs so can’t walk too fast!’ 
  • You might also find Sara out dancing. ‘I like house music and clubbing, though I don’t do that as much now. I’m an old-school raver!’
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