Saving children from exploitation

Sex grooming victim

Sex grooming victim

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LAVISHED with gifts and affection, the vulnerable 13-year-old lapped up the attention.

Little did she know, she was actually being groomed for sex by a man twice her age.

It’s a terrifying experience which has prompted a mother, whose young teenage daughter was sexually exploited by a group of men, to speak out at Lancashire’s first conference aimed at tackling child sexual exploitation.

Police hope the mother’s voice at today’s conference will raise awareness of the sickening issue.

The mother, who cannot be named to protect the identity of her daughter, hopes her brave steps will help stop other youngsters being targeted in the same way as her daughter.

The mum-of-seven, who is from East Lancashire, told how her 13-year-old daughter moved in with her after the relationship with her father broke down.

“She was isolated. Her older siblings had friends but they were 18 and 19. She sort of latched on to them really,” she explained.

But the worried mum soon became concerned her daughter was spending too much time with her so-called new “friends”.

She added: “She was always texting the friends of her older brother, she was meeting with them and started staying out at night and, if I tried to ground her, she would go ballistic.

“I used to wait until she had gone out then call the police. When she came home, she had no explanation of where she’d been or who she’d been with. She was a stranger to me.”

The abuse came to light when some graffiti of a sexual nature was found scrawled on the girl’s bedroom wall. It had been written by a man who had visited the house in the middle of the night.

It later emerged the girl had been receiving texts from several older men who would take her out in their cars and give her alcohol.

She was even given cocaine and taken to a hotel.

The mother added: “I gave my permission for the police to intervene and seize her mobile phone. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I felt helpless and angry. I tried to confront the perpetrators but they just laughed at me.”

The girl and her family were helped by Operation Freedom, a multi-agency task force set up to protect girls and boys from child sexual exploitation.

Months on, the girl has returned to school and is looking to the future.

“It made me realise what I was doing was wrong and helped me to get out of the abuse situation,” said the girl.

Her mother added: “She is a totally different person now. I’m really proud of her. I would urge any parents who are worried about their children being exploited to talk to them. Just make sure. If you are wrong fantastic.

“I was terrified of her getting addicted to drugs and into prostitution. There are girls who don’t come home.”

Those fears are all too real for the family of Charlene Downes (left) – a Blackpool schoolgirl who has been missing since November 2003.

The 14-year-old’s disappearance led to the establishment of Operation Awaken, a joint police and council project targeting predators who seek out vulnerable teenagers – girls and boys – who may swap sex for food, money, drinks, drugs, or affection.

Since inception, the team, which consists of police officers from Lancashire Constabulary, staff from Blackpool Council’s Children’s Services department and a nurse from Blackpool Primary Care Trust, has made 234 arrests and successfully convicted 89 offenders.

From October 2010 to February this year, Awaken received 135 referrals from victims, parents and carers and identified 54 suspects of child exploitation in Blackpool. Of those, 31 were arrested, 13 handed abduction notices and 14 charged with a range of offences from abduction to child rape.

The police are quick to point out these sorts of offences are not isolated to the seaside resort and today’s conference – which has been funded by the Lancashire, Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool Safeguarding Boards – aims to give specialist teams chance to share ideas and solutions.

Det Supt Ian Critchley, Lancashire’s head of public protection, said: “Sexual exploitation occurs across the country. The purpose of this conference is to bring all agencies together to share ideas and solutions to problems that we all face. It is about building on our success and I hope it helps to reassure the public that we are working to address the issue.

“To hear from a mother and victim about their experience is really useful. It allows us to see where we are doing well but also how we can improve.

“We are clear that, in Lancashire, we are able to tackle this problem, target offenders and help those children who have become, or are at risk of becoming, victims because we put the resources into safeguarding those who are vulnerable and bringing to justice those who are responsible.

“We will continue to target, warn and prosecute offenders to hit home the message that this type of behaviour is not just unacceptable, it is criminal, and we will pursue those people involved and bring them to justice.”

julia.bennett@blackpoolgazette.co.uk