If anyone deserves to publish a memoir, it’s Maggie Oliver.
She’s the former police officer who resigned from her job at Greater Manchester Police in order to expose the flaws she’d witnessed during the Rochdale sex gang investigation and the abuse of young girls.
Her story is fascinating but Maggie admits she wasn’t sure whether she had the strength to relive the toll it took to become a whistle-blower.
“I’d always focused on the failures of the authorities, and to give the girls a voice, but to do the book I had to go into a box that was locked in my own head,” says Maggie.
Last year, she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. “I’ve never been frightened of a challenge, and I felt it was necessary to reach a wider audience,” says Maggie of her decision to take part. Afterwards, she met up with her editor in Manchester, and with her encouragement, “I eventually thought that until I’ve opened that box, I’m never going to really move forward, so I bit the bullet”.
The result is Survivors: One Brave Detective’s Battle to Expose the Rochdale Child Abuse Scandal, a blisteringly honest account of her professional and personal life, how the fight for truth affected her both mental and physically, and the heartache she suffered at losing her husband Norman, and later, her granddaughter Macie.
But she begins by talking about growing up in Bacup, the travels she and Norman enjoyed before settling down and having four children, and then, in the nineties, her decision to embark on a new career, and at the age of 42, graduating from police college.
“I loved what I did, and I feel like I’ve made a difference to people’s lives and made their journeys through the criminal justice system more tolerable if you like,” says Maggie. But as a woman in a male-dominated organisation, she admits it was tough.
“It was a very difficult path. I’ve always thought I’ve been a little bit ahead of the thinking that exists at the top of Greater Manchester Police, ahead of my time in a way, and I think it’s because I was an older woman with quite a lot of life experience already.
“I didn’t expect it to be cut short in the way it was, but I have no regrets about resigning, other than the two-year hell I went through where I questioned everything. It really did make me very ill, to the extent I collapsed at work. I was in such a bad place caused by trying to be heard.”
During her career, Maggie worked on gangland murders, kidnappings and witness protection cases. She also investigated multiple allegations of serious sexual assault on vulnerable white girls by Asian men in and around Manchester as part of Operation Augusta.
As she details in the book, by 2004, the team had an initial list of almost 207 Asian men who they believed were abusing at least 26 children.
Maggie took several months off to look after Norman. When she returned to work after his death in 2005, she discovered a couple of the men had received warnings under the Child Abduction Act – but there were no charges, no convictions and no explanations when Maggie asked her bosses.
Five years later, she was asked to join Operation Span, primarily to gain the trust and interview two sisters at the centre of an investigation also involving Asian men abusing girls, this time in Rochdale.
Following certain reassurements, Maggie accepted the job, and after six months, the team produced DNA proof, detailed statements and identifications.
In 2012, nine members of a paedophile grooming ring were jailed. Maggie felt it didn’t go far enough, so later that year she made the decision to resign from her job in order to speak out publicly about the true extent of the abuse, and the failure to protect the victims – children who were deemed to be making ‘lifestyle choices’.
“I think at the forefront of that was the attitude that these kids don’t matter. These kids were seen as an underclass and not worth protecting and the reality was these kids and these families were already written off by society in many ways, so they didn’t approach the police.
“So even though the authorities knew what was happening, the fact these crimes weren’t being reported meant they could turn a blind eye…it made it very easy to ignore the problem was there. On top of that, they didn’t want to be seen as racist,” says Maggie.
“Operation Augustus stopped the day of the London bombing [in July 2005]. There was not another entry on the system, and that to me says it all. It was a convenient way of not having to put resources into protecting these kids. Even though every senior police officer, politicians, the Home Office, they all knew this was going on in pretty much every town and city in the country.
“I could not walk away and be part of that neglect. My job was important to me, but my conscience was more important, and I want my kids to be proud of me. I didn’t know where that journey was going to go when I chose to speak out, but I did know it was the right thing to do.”
In 2017, Three Girls, a drama about the scandal, aired on BBC One, with Lesley Sharp portraying Maggie.
“I’m more affectionate and warm than how Lesley played me, but it was a drama,” she says. “There are there things I would’ve liked to have been said and covered that weren’t, but in the bigger scheme of things, it educated the country on what grooming is and it allowed me to take the debate to the next level.
“I can start to talk about the failures in the criminal justice system, and how it picks [these kids] up, uses them and spits them out. There’s now an empathy for these kids and not a judgement that they are bad kids doing bad things.”
Later this month, Maggie is launching the Maggie Oliver Foundation. Her first goal is to open a centre in Rochdale, which will help survivors of abuse to move forward with their lives.
“I want it to be all-inclusive for survivors of different backgrounds, to know there is someone who will hold their hand, and there will be access to counselling and psychotherapy and legal advice,” says Maggie whose wider ambition is to open Maggie Oliver Centres up and down the county, but she’ll need support from the public to achieve her aims.
“I would like everyone to read the book and at the end of it to make up their mind as to whether they trust me and if they want to support me to continue this journey forward, and if they do, to donate what they can to the foundation and I will make sure that money is put to good use,” says Maggie.
“I don’t know how I’ve managed to wriggle through all the barriers put in my place, but I managed to do it and be heard and that gives me a great sense of having done something worthwhile. Sometimes it’s very wearing, but when I hear from the girls that they’re proud of me, I guess in the bad moments that’s what keeps me going.”
Survivors: One Brave Detective’s Battle to Expose the Rochdale Child Abuse Scandal by Maggie Oliver is out now priced £8.99.