Blackpool's Awaken project 'saved' children from abuse

Doncaster, Rotherham, Rochdale '“ northern towns scarred by child exploitation scandals, recenty highlighted by the TV drama Three Girls.

Monday, 31st July 2017, 4:51 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:44 pm
TV drama Three Girls put the issue of child sexual exploitation in northern towns in the national spotlight again
TV drama Three Girls put the issue of child sexual exploitation in northern towns in the national spotlight again

But could measures put in place in Blackpool following a high-profile case, have prevented the resort being included in that list?

The Awaken project was launched in the aftermath of the disappearance and suspected murder of schoolgirl Charlene Downes.

The scheme, jointly run by Blackpool Council and Lancashire Police is credited with preventing more young girls becoming victims of child sexual exploitation in Blackpool.

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New CCTV was released last year showing Charlene Downes in her final hours

As the investigation into the disappearance of teenager Charlene Downes has widened, officers have uncovered more cases with new victims coming forward and sharing their stories.

Det Supt Andy Webster and his team have already secured convictions – although their ultimate goal, catching the teenager’s killer still eludes them.

The detective and his team have cast their net wide in the hope of uncovering evidence which might lead to a breakthrough in Charlene’s case.

Along the way they are uncovering a worrying picture of Blackpool in the early 2000s, one in which vulnerable young girls were being sexually exploited by grown men.

New CCTV was released last year showing Charlene Downes in her final hours

But Det Supt Webster believes the Awaken project, put in place following Charlene’s disappearance may have prevented Blackpool’s problems reaching the scale of those reported elsewhere in the UK.

Awaken is run jointly by Blackpool Council Children’s Services and the police, based at Bonny Street Police Station. Its aim is to safeguard vulnerable children and young people under the age of 18 who are sexually exploited.

It also aims to identify, target and prosecute associated offenders.

Inquiries in Rotherham, Doncaster and Rochdale have revealed shocking levels of abuse involving dozens of victims.

The scale of the problem in Blackpool in the early 2000s is slowly being revealed.

Four men have already been brought to justice for crimes linked to child sexual exploitation in the resort, with more potential victims now coming forward.

Det Supt Webster said: “We now know what was happening in Blackpool.

“What came about as a result of this case was a significant reaction.

“Blackpool led the way nationally in dealing with these kinds of crimes. In 2004 we established Awaken and that has been replicated nationally.

“There have been significant investigations which have brought the issue to the fore since our work with Awaken began.

“In Rochdale, in Rotherham, in Doncaster we have seen significant child sexual exploitation investigations. I would like to think in Blackpool that we have always been more aware – we have acted quicker because we have had Awaken in place.”

Even Charlene’s mother, who continues to push for justice for her daughter, can see the good Awaken, and the widened investigation, have done.

She said: “It is positive that they are bringing other people to justice, that other victims are coming forward.

“There should be justice for every one of these victims, and that includes Charlene.

“I can also see how Awaken has made a difference, has perhaps prevented more people from becoming victims, and that is a good thing.”

But for now the success of Awaken remains bittersweet for a mother who just wants to be able to close a tragic chapter in her life.

Despite extensive inquiries and high profile media coverage, the investigation into the murder of Charlene remains one of the longest and most complex in Lancashire Police history.

She said: “I’d still like to see people arrested and convicted over the death of my daughter.”

Child grooming was thrust into the spotlight following the disappearance of 14-year-old schoolgirl Charlene Downes in 2003.

The teenager was last seen on November 1 in Blackpool town centre.

CCTV footage shows her on Bank Hey Street and then, it is thought, Talbot Road, earlier in the evening.

Detectives say she was on Abingdon Street at around 10.30pm but after that the trail goes cold.

Despite numerous appeals and a £100,000 reward – which has never been claimed –the case remains unsolved.

However the investigation continues to catch those responsible for her death.

Resort takeaway bosses Iyad Albattikhi and Mohammed Reveshi were charged with killing and disposing of her body, but were later acquitted of all charges.

The investigation, did, however, reveal a squalid problem of sexual exploitation.

Over the past decade the Awaken team has uncovered hundreds of potential cases with dozens of potential suspects identified.

The Awaken team, based at Blackpool Police Station, continues to work to identify vulnerable young people and protect them from harm.