It is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Their child runs away from home and not only goes missing, but ends up in the clutches of a sexual predator.
The issue of child sexual exploitation has been catapulted into the public conscience in the past year or two, following a number of high profile cases in other parts of the country.
Yet police say that here in Blackpool there needs to be more of a focus on the issue – and more work must be done to help keep children here safe.
As part of a week-long crackdown on sexual predators this month, the force arrested five people in the resort on suspicion of downloading and distributing indecent images of children.
A total of 22 arrests from across Lancashire were made during a week-long crack down on child sexual exploitation.
Det Supt Neil Esseen, of Lancashire Police, said: “Blackpool has long been a glamour target where people run away from home to – the bright lights of Blackpool – and that comes with its own problems.
“The town has its own issues, not just grooming but child sexual exploitation, which is certainly a priority of the force. We must all work together to make sure those children are kept safe.”
Det Supt Esseen said many of the people arrested had not been previously known to the police.
He added: “This operation has been successful in two ways, firstly we have arrested 22 people who we believe have committed these offences and we have quite successfully raised the profile of child sexual exploitation, moving away from the stereotypical image to the realistic and wide range of problem we know there is.
“Intelligence is coming from a variety of difference sources and research – some people have reported it and some has come from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I want to reassure people we are not looking for those who are inadvertently on the internet when an image pops up, this is about those who have a long term and concerted focus on this activity.”
The arrested men will be subject of a police investigation when their computers will be examined.
The crackdown comes after it was revealed some 100 children across Blackpool were identified as being at risk of potentially falling into the clutches of sexual predators.
Between October 2012 and March 2013, concerns were raised about 113 children on the Fylde coast by parents, teachers, friends and youth workers, the official figures show.
In the three years to March 2013, police checked out 1,000 youngsters in Western Division which covers Blackpool, after they were flagged up as potential victims by the town’s specialist anti-child sexual exploitation team Awaken.
The lives of a further 400 suspected paedophiles in the area were also looked at under the microscope in that time.
In addition to raids on suspects, the crackdown focussed on people who put children at risk, such as adults who provide alcohol.
Det Supt Esseen said: “Everything that’s happened in the last two weeks has seen child sexual exploitation go massively up on our priority list.
“We have done a great deal of work as a force to raise the issue, and we will carry on doing it.
“The internet gives people the impression of anonymity. People think ‘no-one will be looking for me. Millions of people use the internet every day, they will not be looking for me’. Just be assured that if you have committed these offences in Lancashire we are looking for you, and we will find you.”
Det Supt Esseen also said it was important for parents and residents to remain vigilant of what is happening in and around their homes.
He added: “If you see a neighbour who lives alone, has never married and has no children suddenly turn up with teenage girls and boys in the car you need to ask the question, what is he doing.
“It’s not nosey, it’s neighbourly and we have the right to look after our children.”
Det Supt Ian Critchley, of Lancashire Police’s public protection unit, added: “Tackling child sexual exploitation and grooming is an absolute priority. We receive around 1,200 referrals each year in Lancashire, right through to the most serious offences of child rape and abduction.