Christina O’Connor with her dad
A victim of Britain’s largest sex grooming gang has told of the ongoing stigma that continues to punish her and many other victims, long after the abuse has ended.
Almost every day for more than four years Christina O’Connor was raped, beaten and intimidated.
Somehow, she survived those indignities and the horror of giving birth to her son behind bars, following her imprisonment for stealing on the orders of the violent men who controlled her.
On release, she bravely faced her tormentors in court and saw them imprisoned for a catalogue of degrading and “inhuman” crimes on her and other underage girls.
But while she views the prison term she received when she was 19 as her salvation, she feels the criminal record she received prevents her receiving total “absolution”.
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She says a lack of proper aftercare for girls who survive grooming gangs is an “ongoing issue”.
“I’d welcome support from the agencies who failed me the first time around. I’d like them to recognise I’m the victim,” she said.
“Like many other girls the criminal convictions I got were all part of the grooming, yet lots of places won’t even look at you once they see you’ve got a record for theft.
“They’ve held me back and there is nothing I can do about it. It’s wrong.”
The 31-year-old has waived her right to anonymity to tell her story, in the hope of helping others who fall prey to sexual exploitation.
Christina described how she went from being a happy child from a loving family to a helpless victim caught in the clutches of a grooming gang whose heinous crimes saw them jailed for almost 400 years.
She came from a working-class background in Huddersfield. She adored her Irish father and admits she was a “daddy’s girl”.
But at secondary school, her parents were faced with a 13-year-old daughter playing truant to escape playground bullies.
“They called me ‘fattie”. I hated being there, so I would turn up in the morning, register, then disappear with my friend,” she said.
Her life changed one morning as she hung around a bus station in her hometown. She and her friend met three older men.
“I was flattered by their attention – soon they were taking us out in cars, offering us drinks and drugs,” she explained.
“When you drink and take drugs you feel good about yourself and you’re hanging around with people who are meant to be your friends.
“My mum just thought I was a teenager pushing boundaries, while my dad didn’t have a clue – he was too busy working.” In reality she was being lured into a dark world where she was forced to perform sex acts with strangers in exchange for pizza, vodka and cannabis.
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Christina in unhappy school days
Abuse went hand-in-hand with violence and threats, that if she did not go along with their demands her family would be targeted.
She was treated as a commodity, passed around groups of men, taken to hotels and raped.
When her parents finally realised the scale of what was going on they took action. Christina moved school and her mum went to the police and social services for help. Neither did any good.
“I thought there was no way out,” she said. “There was always the fear of repercussions, so I did what they wanted and took the drink and drugs.
“It was a vicious circle – it became every day. I just had to black out what I was doing.”
After almost five years of abuse, Christina was trapped in a downward spiral. She had left school with just once GCSE in French, while her “lifestyle” made it impossible to hold down a job.
Things changed after she committed knifepoint robberies under duress from the boss of the grooming gang. She was almost 19 and had discovered she was pregnant.
She found herself in court facing charges of burglary and robbery with assault. One victim was known to her mother.
By 2011 Christina was starting a three-and-a-half-year jail term.
Gang ringleader Amere Singh Dhaliwal was jailed for life
It was her lowest moment, yet it was to prove pivotal in turning her life around. She was allowed to keep her baby while in jail and studied hard for qualifications.
Eventually, she was released early for good behaviour.
“Prison got me away from drink, drugs, crime and the abuse,” she said. “As soon as they knew I was out the intimidation started all over again. However, I was determined to make a go of my life for my little baby, and make my family proud.” Two years after her release, her original police statement was found at the back of a filing cabinet and Operation Tendersea was launched.
She would become the main prosecution witness, and during three gruelling trials would tell the world how she had been abused.
In 2018, 11 men were convicted of 43 offences against her, including 22 counts of rape.
In total 20 men were convicted of more than 120 offences of rape and abuse against 15 girls.
It is the largest gang convicted for sex abuse in the UK.
Most of the gang were Pakistani and from West Yorkshire and Sheffield. The ringleader, father-of-two Amere Singh Dhaliwal, was jailed for life and told he must serve a minimum of 18 years.
The judge described his treatment of the girls as “inhuman”.
Further prosecutions followed and by 2021 the number of men convicted had risen to 41.
A report released in 2019 said 15 of the females involved were known to children’s services.
Five years on from the trials Christina has published her memoirs in a bid to conquer her trauma and give a voice to victims, who she claims are still being let down.
Christina was offered just 10 hours of counselling to help heal the deep psychological scars.
“First, they stuck me on a waiting list, then I had a couple of sessions before they changed my counsellor. I know I’m not the only one to suffer similar issues. Something has to change.
“There’s no real aftercare for victims of grooming. How can you unpick the trauma of five years
of abuse in 10 one-hour sessions?”
Currently, Christina is working in the hospitality industry, but it has not been easy. “My criminal record makes it tough for me to get work,” she said. “Even now I still don’t feel as though I’ve really been absolved of responsibility.
“I can’t change the path I was forced to take when I was 14. But I can speak out to try and make sure children grow up knowing about the evils of grooming.
“We need to educate girls to speak out, and we need to support them when they do. If I could go back and talk to that little girl playing truant, I would urge her to scream out about the men she met at the bus station, who gave her vodka and made her feel special.
“There are people out there who will help. You just need to look in the right place.”