Sara Rowbotham, the incredible sexual health worker whose fight to win justice for sexually exploited girls in Rochdale was was the inspiration behind the recent hit BBC drama Three Girls, appeared on Channel 4’s First Dates on Tuesday night (23 May).
“I was really involved with my work in social services,” she told her date Nicky, when pressed as to why she has been single for over eight years.
“I was really involved with my work in social services, it was all-encompassing, it was child sexual exploitation in Rochdale.”
Sara continued: “Children told me that they were being sexually abused and trying to get other people to do anything about it was really difficult.
“It went on for almost 10 years before anyone did anything about it.”
Overcome by emotion, Sara soon found herself wiping away tears of frustration, anger, and – above all else – relief that the girls she made it her mission to provide a voice for have finally been heard.
“I feel like I’m coming out of a difficult dark time,” she said. “I was a big fireball at the time, I became really angry all the time.
“[But] I’m ready to start my life again, and be able to have nice times, and not be so stressed or anxious or angry.”
Sara later decided that she and Nicky weren’t well suited to romance, although they agreed to remain friends after a quick chat.
However the experience has allowed her to move on from an incredibly dark and difficult chapter of her life – and she has been branded a ‘hero’ by viewers watching back home.
Sara – who was recently portrayed by Maxine Peake in BBC One’s Three Girls – worked for the NHS’s Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team from 2004 to 2014.
During her time there, she was approached by countless underage girls who had been dragged into a cycle of sexual violence by a group of older Asian men. Yet, when Sara alerted the authorities, they dismissed her claims and told her to accept the girls’ “lifestyle choices”.
Undeterred by the police’s disinterest in what she had to say, the real-life Sara continued to fight to make the girls’ voices heard. From 2005 through to 2011, she made referrals for 181 young people – and yet only nine prosecutions were made.
Speaking at the MP-led inquiry into the case in 2012, Sara said: “It was unfortunate that it was about attitudes towards teenagers. It was absolute disrespect that vulnerable young people did not have a voice. They were overlooked, they were discriminated against.
“They were treated appallingly by protective services. I told everybody these children were being abused. As far as I’m concerned, I told everybody.”
After years of being ignored, Sara was finally taken seriously by the new detective assigned to the case, DC Margaret Oliver (played by Lesley Sharp in Three Girls). And it was Sara’s evidence that proved crucial in the conviction of nine men for sex trafficking crimes against at least 47 girls between 2008 and 2012.
The fallout from the Rochdale case led to apologies being issued by Greater Manchester Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the local council for failing to act sooner on Sara’s warnings about the abuse.
The scandal was, as previously mentioned, recently brought to life in a powerful three-part drama, BBC One’s Three Girls.
Speaking on First Dates about the show, which, at the time of filming, had not yet come out, Sara admitted that she had a particular actor in mind to play her.
“Cindy Crawford,” she said, with a cheeky grin.
We’re sure she was every bit as happy with Maxine Peake – especially considering the glowing reviews that the star’s acting has received from viewers.