The chief constable of South Yorkshire Police has offered to meet a young woman who was groomed and abused by a gang of paedophiles in Sheffield 10 years ago – after she alleged to Sky News that a police officer was one of her abusers.
Leona Whitworth, 28, has waived her anonymity to tell her story.
It comes in the week a damning report revealed thousands of corrupt officers may be serving in England and Wales.
Leona, whose mother was disabled with mental health problems, was easy prey for a woman called Amanda Spencer, who was convicted eight years ago of grooming young girls in Sheffield and selling them for sex.
“I genuinely thought I loved her,” said Leona. “She understood everything I said, and she listened, and she said she loved and cared about me. I thought she cared about me.”
Spencer would take young girls to parties, where she introduced them to the men. Aged 13, Leona says she was drugged and woke up to find a man raping her. She says she was beaten by Spencer and a number of men until she became compliant.
She told Sky News: “I spent weeks with them getting beaten and raped and drugged. And then I was allowed to go home, I was allowed to go to school, I was allowed to see my friends, because they knew they could come and get me whenever they wanted.”
To begin with, she thought she was being punished for doing something wrong.
She said: “I suppose that’s how kids think, don’t they? If they grow up always being in the wrong, always being the bad child, then if something bad happens, that’s always going to be your fault. You’ve obviously done something to start that happening.”
For months, she was convinced by her abusers that she had to keep the whole thing a secret, and she says authorities including police, social workers and teachers showed a lack of curiosity whenever she disappeared.
She said: “The thing was not ‘what have you been doing?’ It was, ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ My answer was always, ‘I don’t know. I’m sorry.’
“Nobody would have believed me. They convinced me of that. Nobody’s going to believe me and if I do say something, what’s going to happen to my family. They knew where I lived. My mum was a disabled woman. What’s she going to do? She’s going to ring the police?”
Leona’s faith in the police was shattered further, she alleges, when she discovered one of her abusers was a police officer. She claims she realised this when he picked her up once after she went missing.
She says he pretended not to know her.
“He just spoke to me like the police officers do,” she recalls. ‘You know everybody’s been worried about you, don’t you? You can’t keep putting your family through this. You’ve got a lot of people out there looking for you, and you’re wasting our resources by doing this.'”
This allegation comes after the police inspectorate warned earlier this week that poor vetting was allowing sexual predators to join police forces.
The review, commissioned following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met Police officer, found it was currently “too easy for the wrong people” to join and to stay in the police.
Responding to Leona’s claims, South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Lauren Poultney said: “What happened to Leona at the hands of her abusers is simply unforgivable, and I am extremely concerned to hear today that the trauma she faced may have involved an officer who was serving with the force.
“There is no place in policing for individuals who abuse their position for criminal behaviour, and we proactively root out those who do so.
“I want to say to Leona directly that I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to obtain as much detail as you can provide in relation to this officer.
“We are here to listen and, if you feel ready to make a report, I will personally ensure this matter is thoroughly investigated by the specially trained officers in my counter corruption unit.
“If you feel more comfortable speaking to a third party, you can go to Crimestoppers or even the National Crime Agency’s Operation Stovewood, which is dedicated to the investigation of child sexual exploitation offences in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.
“To Leona, and to any other victims or survivors who haven’t yet felt ready to tell someone what happened to them – please be assured it is never too late to make that report.”
Leona didn’t report the incident with the police officer at the time. Eventually she escaped to Norfolk – and one day the police came knocking after she’d been identified by others as a child victim.
She had been trying to forget and told Sky News that when the police arrived it “felt like the earth ate me.”
She says: “I had tried to pretend it weren’t real. If it’s a bad dream, it doesn’t hurt, does it? If it’s a bad dream, it never happened. It’s not real.”
In May 2014, after a trial at Sheffield Crown Court, Spencer was sentenced to 12 years in jail along with one of the abusers.
Detective Chief Inspector Bob Chapman, who led the investigation, said Spencer had carried out “sustained and calculated abuse” and that she had “preyed on some of the most vulnerable people in our community, grooming them under the pretence of friendship, using the lure of drink and drugs in order to coerce them into doing what she wanted and when her demands weren’t met she would threaten violence, intimidating them into submission”.
But years later, for Leona, the demons don’t go away.
She can’t remember how many men abused her during the period she was under Spencer’s control.
She said: “I don’t know. And as weird as it might sound, I don’t want to know.
“I don’t want to know because the amount that I do know, whether it was my fault or not, I still feel dirty.”
Leona has shown incredible courage to speak out, but it is a mark of the damage she still carries that she ended the interview asking herself whether she was somehow to blame.
There is, of course, no blame on any 13-year-old-girl in that situation, but sometimes it takes years to come to terms with it, and the memories can never be erased.