The woman who helped expose the Rotherham abuse scandal and jail an evil grooming gang is telling her incredible story as she campaigns to help other victims. Chris Burn reports.
For four years, she has told the world her horrifying story from the shadows - putting unrelenting pressure on the authorities to finally deliver justice for the abused girls of Rotherham. But now Sammy Woodhouse has waived her anonymity to reveal her true identity as she emerges from the darkness of the town’s notorious exploitation scandal.
After bravely giving her first interview to the BBC a fortnight ago, Sammy has been much in demand, speaking to multiple national newspapers and appearing on Loose Women and Good Morning Britain.
“It has been a whirlwind. The reaction has been so positive, I’ve had so much support from people, with people from all over the world messaging me - saying they have come forward about abuse or made donations to charity,” she says.
“Bits of my story have been told over and over again for the past four years so I wasn’t expecting there to be much of an interest.”
But it has been a long, difficult road to reach this point. In 2013, Sammy made a fateful decision that would set in motion a chain of events that would eventually expose the true depths Rotherham’s abuse scandal and bring an evil child grooming gang to justice.
She contacted Times reporter Andrew Norfolk, who had previously written about secret police documents suggesting there was a “significant problem with networks of Asian males exploiting young white females” in Rotherham.
Sammy explained to him that she had recently contacted the police to report what had happened to her as a child - she had been sexually and physically abused from the age of 14 by a man named Arshid Hussain, a serial child abuser who was 24 when they met. Hussain made her pregnant twice and she had a child when she was 15.
However, police revealed key evidence from the time including her diary had “disappeared”, while a detective told her officers who had witnessed her abuse would not wish to give evidence for fear of “getting in the s***”.
In August 2013, The Times published her story, taking the unusual step of naming her alleged abuser as Arshid Hussain because of the weight of evidence against him. Sammy was referred to in the article as ‘Jessica’ to keep her identity secret - a name that ending up sticking.
South Yorkshire Police put pressure on both Sammy and The Times to prevent the story being published, but after it was printed, police finally conducted their first formal interview with her in what would eventually become Operation Clover - a landmark investigation that has now resulted in 13 people being jailed for a combined 199 years after two trials.
Among those convicted of multiple sexual offences against children was Arshid Hussain and his three brothers Basharat, Bannaras and Sageer. The trials revealed how the brothers and their associates had raped, tortured and prostituted young girls with impunity in the town for years.
Sammy’s story also shamed Rotherham Council into ordering an independent inquiry into its handling of historic child sexual exploitation cases.
The inquiry reported its damning conclusions in August 2014 - at least 1,400 children had been sexually exploited in the town, police had treated victims with “contempt”, there had been “blatant” failures in council leadership and abuse was continuing to the present day.
With the world’s attention focused on Rotherham, Sammy began to do hundreds of interviews with journalists as ‘Jessica’ to push for justice to be done.
It also saw South Yorkshire Police make Operation Clover a priority case. Almost two years after her story first appeared in The Times, Arshid Hussain was finally charged with multiple child sexual exploitation offences in June 2015.
In court, Arshid Hussain’s defence team repeatedly asserted that Mr Norfolk and Sammy had been involved in a “conspiracy” with the other victims to invent the claims against him - allegations that were utterly rejected by the jury.
At the end of the three-month trial, as Hussain was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Judge Sarah Wright singled out Sammy for special praise.
She told Hussain: “Despite the substantial hurdles she has encountered, your victim has shown considerable courage, tenacity and a steely determination in bringing these horrific crimes to the attention of the public.”
Sammy says it is difficult to believe how events have progressed since she first contacted Mr Norfolk. “I rang him out of desperation. I don’t know exactly what I expected to happen, I just needed somebody to pay attention. I had been to the police and they weren’t doing anything. I just needed to make people aware of what was going on.
“I remember being sat with Andrew and saying ‘What do you think is going to happen’? He said if this doesn’t work I have got nothing else to go on.”
She says she had been “really nervous” about revealing her true identity through the BBC interview but felt it was important so she could move on with her life at last.
“I was expecting a lot of negative stuff and was trying to prepare myself for it but I got to see the film before it went out and I just felt this whole weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’m finding it really strange the fact people now know me as Sammy. I got so used to being Jessica. I have been a completely different persona for the last four years.”
Sammy hopes revealing her true identity will assist with her campaigning work. She is calling for the introduction of ‘Sammy’s Law’ - a pardon for abuse victims with criminal records for offences committed when they were being abused.
During the time she was being abused, Sammy received criminal convictions for offences including possession of an offensive weapon and assault.
She says that as part of the grooming process, victims are often encouraged to commit crimes by their abusers to prevent them speaking to the police. Sammy says when she first came forward to speak to police she was warned she could be charged with further offences she had committed as a child and feels that the current situation may be putting off many victims from coming forward to report abuse.
“We need to recognise criminals are grooming children for crime. Nobody really talks about that, there is obviously a focus on grooming for sexual abuse. I want something in place that people can come forward and report their abuse and not fear they could be put in prison. Or they will end up not coming forward.
“People now say my decision to come forward was really brave because it worked, but it could have been really brave or really stupid. We need people to come forward and report their abuse, The reason abusers get victims into crime is to prevent them coming forward.
“If I went for a job interview now, I would have to say at 14 I was abused and that is why I have got a criminal record. You shouldn’t have to do that. It is like is somebody robbing a bank with a gun and the cashier handing over the money and then the cashier being charged with a crime.”
Sammy says there have been many highs and lows along the road to justice. “I remember when they charged him and I just burst into tears. It was such a long investigation and I remember saying to the police if you don’t arrest him soon, I’m dropping out.”
She says it has also been difficult becoming known as the voice of victims, even when she was anonymous to the wider public.
“With everything going on, people have looked at me as the voice of it, which I can’t moan at for one second but it was a lot to carry on my shoulders. Especially with the trial, it was huge pressure.”
But for Sammy, the best part of the last few years is a deeply personal one. “For me, the highlight has been how mine and my son’s relationship has come together through it all.”