IT could be anyone’s child.
That was the stark message from police dealing with Blackpool’s seedy world of child sexual exploitation – a crime which they claim “cuts across all sections of society”.
The resort’s specialist Awaken team brought the police and the council together to tackle the problem in the wake of teenager Charlene Downes’ disappearance in 2003, and today officers spoke out in a bid to raise awareness of the issue and encourage more victims to come forward.
It comes after 15-year-old “Stacey” revealed in Saturday’s Gazette how she was addicted to drugs aged 12 and was sexually exploited by older men.
Det Insp Tony Baxter, head of public protection for Blackpool Police, said: “Child sexual exploitation in Blackpool cuts across all sections of society.
“The vast majority of our offenders are white males who have never come to the notice of the police for this type of behaviour.
“We are not about criminalising young people who are in a consensual relationship, what we are after is older males and females who use their superior age, intellect and size to exert pressure over much younger children for exploitation.”
Coun Sarah Riding, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, added: “There’s an image kids who are being sexually exploited are running wild but all young people are vulnerable.”
The team is made up of police officers who will investigate whether any crimes have been committed, social workers who assess the youngster’s welfare and health and education officers.
And, although Awaken’s work does not always lead to a prosecution, they work with affected youngsters over months to ensure they are supported.
Andy Shackleton, child care practice manager for Blackpool Council, said: “We’ve had disclosures of serious sexual offences some two years after the event where the young person has finally been able to say what’s happened to them.”