Sheffield grooming gang survivor haunted by crimes left 'broken' after hearing abuser freed using new name

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A survivor of a Sheffield child grooming gang says she was left ‘broken,’ after hearing that the woman responsible for facilitating much of her abuse had been freed from prison and was able to start again using a new name.

After months of being subjected to the most heinous sexual abuse, Leona Whitworth felt the only way she could escape it was to flee her family home and leave Sheffield on her own, aged just 14.

Amanda Spencer is the woman responsible for grooming Leona, who waived her right to anonymity earlier this month. Leona believed Spencer to be her best friend, but within just two months of meeting her, Spencer – and the grooming gang she was involved with – had begun to be paid for arranging for others to sexually abuse Leona, beginning when was she was just 13-years-old in 2008.

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Leona alleges that a serving South Yorkshire Police officer was among the men who raped her, and subsequently picked her up in a police car on two separate occasions after she had been reported missing.

28-year-old Leona Whitworth, who has waived her right to anonymity, was exploited by a Sheffield grooming gang when she was just 13-years-old28-year-old Leona Whitworth, who has waived her right to anonymity, was exploited by a Sheffield grooming gang when she was just 13-years-old
28-year-old Leona Whitworth, who has waived her right to anonymity, was exploited by a Sheffield grooming gang when she was just 13-years-old

Groomer Amanda Spencer was sentenced to 12 years’ custody in 2014, then aged 23, for offences committed against Leona following a trial at Sheffield Crown Court, and was sentenced to an additional three years in 2017, after being found guilty of similar offences committed in Sheffield.

Fellow gang member, Ian Foster, then aged 68, was convicted of three counts of sexual assault against two girls aged 13 and 14 and a woman in the same trial. Foster, formerly of High Green, was also subject of an earlier unrelated trial in January 2014 where he was found guilty of 12 charges relating to sex offences against children, and was sentenced to 14 years’ custody.

Leona says the convictions of Spencer and Foster allowed her to feel that after spending her formative years being branded a ‘naughty child’ by the very authorities that should have been protecting her, she had finally been listened to, she had finally been believed.

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But while it is possible to give abusers a determinate sentence, the mental impact on survivors like Leona is something they are forced to carry with them – long after trials, convictions and sentences have come to an end.

Amanda Spencer has been convicted of multiple offences relating to facilitation of child abuse in SheffieldAmanda Spencer has been convicted of multiple offences relating to facilitation of child abuse in Sheffield
Amanda Spencer has been convicted of multiple offences relating to facilitation of child abuse in Sheffield

Spencer’s release from prison

In November 2021, more than 12 years on from the day a desperate Leona left her home city to escape the grooming gang who threatened to hurt those closest to her if she dared expose their crimes, she was told that Spencer had been released from prison. Despite creating a new life for herself, and putting more than 150 miles of distance between her and Sheffield – Leona says that when she heard Spencer had been freed it left her feeling ‘broken’.

“I was getting help, I was getting better...I was on track again, and then she came out of jail and I was off track again, and I’ve been broken ever since,” Leona said.

She wasn’t the only one. Leona says some of her fellow survivors were also left feeling distraught.

Ian Foster, formerly of Peckham Road, Sheffield, was jailed for 14 years in 2014 after being convicted of sexual assaults committed against two girls aged 13 and 14, and a womanIan Foster, formerly of Peckham Road, Sheffield, was jailed for 14 years in 2014 after being convicted of sexual assaults committed against two girls aged 13 and 14, and a woman
Ian Foster, formerly of Peckham Road, Sheffield, was jailed for 14 years in 2014 after being convicted of sexual assaults committed against two girls aged 13 and 14, and a woman

Leona explains: “It broke us, it was destroying, it was terrifying. It felt like all of those feelings had just come back, the fear, the anger, the upset. Everything just came back, and I couldn’t get rid of it…I ended up having a breakdown then.”

Spencer, formerly of Canklow Road, Rotherham, was recalled to prison just three months later in February 2022, but by then, Leona and other survivors had heard that Spencer was using a different identity. Leona, now aged 28, says she felt as though this meant Spencer had been afforded an opportunity to truly start again, something that she, and other survivors, have been deprived of, due to the complex aftermath of such horrific trauma.

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“We’ve just been left to deal with it. She’s been let out and nobody’s given us support. Where are they,” asked Leona.

‘She was my best friend’

Spencer and Foster were convicted and jailed following trials at Sheffield Crown Court. Picture: Scott MerryleesSpencer and Foster were convicted and jailed following trials at Sheffield Crown Court. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Spencer and Foster were convicted and jailed following trials at Sheffield Crown Court. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Just as with many of the children Spencer preyed upon, at the time the two met through a friend, Leona was vulnerable for a myriad of reasons. She had a strained relationship with her family and was also on a child protection plan.

Leona, who was 13 at the time, remembers being in ‘awe’ of Spencer, and her initial impressions were that she was ‘pretty,’ ‘confident’ and a ‘good listener’.

“She was my best friend, she understood what I was talking about, she said she knew how I was feeling,” Leona said.

Leona now believes that Spencer took such an interest in her life, learning where she lived, about her mother and her disability, where her younger sister went to school, in order to have the information she would need to be able to threaten the safety of those closest to her and force her to remain silent about the despicable crimes she, and others, were planning.

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Leona described how Spencer would take her to parties with lots of young girls and older men, where she would be ‘encouraged’ to drink. She says Spencer was initially so ‘protective’ of her that she would police her every interaction, and would often tell people trying to talk to her to get away from her ‘friend’.

“It’s as if people weren’t allowed to be in my presence,” she said.

Brave Leona says she is passionate about campaigning for the signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation to be taught in all schools, with education on the subject beginning from Year 6 onwardsBrave Leona says she is passionate about campaigning for the signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation to be taught in all schools, with education on the subject beginning from Year 6 onwards
Brave Leona says she is passionate about campaigning for the signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation to be taught in all schools, with education on the subject beginning from Year 6 onwards

The ultimate betrayal

Spencer’s protectiveness lulled Leona into such a false sense of security that when the first arranged rape took place, Leona – who believes she was drugged for much of the abuse – was left in a state of shock. In the moments afterwards, as Leona was coming around from being drugged, she says the rapist left the room and Spencer, along with two men she did not know, came in and ‘beat’ her.

Leona says that what followed was two weeks of hell, as she was repeatedly drugged, beaten and raped. After that, the grooming gang allowed her to leave, and to see friends and family – but she was under strict instructions to be on standby to be picked up for more abuse, whenever they got in touch.

Leona says she was told that if she did not comply – or ever told anyone about what was happening – her house would be burned down, and her disabled mum would be prevented from leaving.

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“You had to be ready to be picked up, and you’d know full well [what was going to happen]; and you’d get to a point where you’d choose your fights, because you get tired of getting beaten up, and you knew full well that even if they got what they wanted you’d still get beaten up,” Leona said.

Over the months that followed, Leona was reported missing at least 10 times, she stopped going to school, she had visible self-harm marks on her body, but no-one attempted to intervene; leaving her feeling ‘let down’ by the authorities and with nowhere to turn.

Leona said: “They just thought I was a dysfunctional, broken child who was acting out.”

‘I was raped by a police officer’

Leona’s concerns about being let down by the authorities were further compounded by the belief that a serving police officer was among the men who had raped her, destroying her faith in the police. She said: “I didn’t go to the police when it was happening, no, because one of the people that paid to rape me was a police officer…so why would I go there?”

South Yorkshire Police's Chief Constable, Lauren Poultney, said she is ‘extremely concerned’ to hear that Leona’s abuse may have involved a police officer, and welcomes the opportunity to meet with Leona to try and obtain as much detail as possible.

In full, Chf Con Poultney’s statement reads: “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 says she feels ‘encouraged’ by Chf Con Poultney’s response, and wants to do everything she can to identify the police officer responsible, and if possible, to bring proceedings against him.

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Forced to leave Sheffield for good

Leona felt as though she would never be able to escape the abuse while she was living in Sheffield, and so, in May 2009, she left her family home aged just 14, and went to live with her father in Norwich. After beginning again, Leona felt the abuse caught up with her when she was asked to make a statement against Spencer, and give evidence in court in the trial against her.

Leona says she was put through the ordeal of spending four days being cross-examined by barristers who told her ‘she was a liar’. Her evidence helped to convict Spencer, but despite this, she says she did not receive any after-care whatsoever from the agencies involved.

Today, Leona’s five children are her priority, but she is also passionate about raising awareness of the signs of child sexual exploitation in schools, and believes it is something that should be taught in all schools, with education on it beginning from Year 6.

“Something that I want to be campaigning for is for grooming, for the signs of grooming and exploitation to be taught to children in schools. But also, healthy relationships - whether it be friendships or romantic - that needs to be taught in schools, because we don’t get taught it, we don’t see it and you end up with people like me who don’t know what on earth they’re doing. People say: ‘Oh you’re so strong’ but I’m broken, very much broken,” she said.

Commended for her bravery

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “This was a horrific crime and our thoughts remain with Leona Whitworth and all the other victims involved.”

Councillor Mick Rooney, Co-Chair of Education, Children and Families Policy Committee in Sheffield, said: “I would like to commend Leona on her bravery for speaking out about her horrific experience and against her abusers. No child should ever have to face what Leona has faced.

“Child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent crime and one which local authorities countrywide have had to learn hard and fast about how to tackle.

"In the 2000s Sheffield City Council had a dedicated frontline CSE team and all concerns about child sexual exploitation that were raised to us were investigated – we acknowledge though that our efforts at that time did not go far enough, and we have since gone to great lengths to learn from cases around the country.

“To ensure that we do better in the future we have learned from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (The Jay report), we have also worked with the Home Office, DfE, researchers and the National Working Group for Child Sexual Exploitation to share our learning and improve our approach. We now have the Amber Service, a multi-agency partnership that tackles child sexual exploitation through a triangulated approach with social workers, the police and youth workers.

“The safety of children and young people is paramount and while our services have come on leaps and bounds in the last decade, we will never be complacent and will continue to do everything we can to protect and support vulnerable children and young people.

“We are doing more to help victims including increasing funding for victim support services to £460 million and introducing a 24/7 helpline for those suffering sexual abuse. We are also introducing a Victims’ Law to ensure all victims get the support they are entitled to.”

* Charity, The Maggie Oliver Foundation aims to create a society where survivors and those at risk of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation are empowered to live fulfilled and successful lives, and where every survivor is treated with dignity, respect and as an equal and valued member of society.

To find out more, or to make a referral, please click here for those wanting to make a self-referral, or here for people hoping to make a referral for someone else.