Streets of shame

THE child protection system failed Blackpool teenager Charlene Downes – that has become an undeniable fact. It failed her parents, too, for Karen and Robert were officially deemed unable to adequately protect the girl they called "our angel".

But Charlene's tragic legacy may yet help other vulnerable youngsters who, like her, stumble into a seedy hinterland of underage sex and exploitation.

"It makes me sick what some human beings can do to children," says Det Insp Tony Baxter, lead officer for Awaken, a joint police and social worker project set up following Charlene's disappearance in November 2003.

Today heralded as a major weapon in the fight against child exploitation, it was born of the light shone upon the dark corners of Charlene's world.

When the sun goes down, Blackpool's often-tarnished Kiss Me Quick image takes on a more disturbing, less innocent meaning.

Investigators drafted in to staff the experimental Awaken project – only due to last a year – quickly realised the risks with which other vulnerable youngsters lived daily, often late into the night.

They found the greatest threat was to 13 and 14-year-olds – but some were as young as 11.

In piecing together seemingly random incidents a bigger picture emerged.

It was the "honeytraps" – and Blackpool has many – which draw paedophiles, sexual offenders and predators here.

Awaken opened a door to the underworld of the arcadian wonderworld, siren sights, sounds, sensations of the seaside, thrills, fast food, gifts, the slow grooming of children who are low on self-esteem and short of cash.

Some sights appalled officers.

"What Charlene taught us, in going missing, was just how prevalent it was," Det Insp Baxter explained.

"In looking into the circumstances surrounding her disappearance we began to review what was happening in Blackpool. We were aware of the problem, but not the size of it.

"It goes on in every town and city where groups of young people congregate and Awaken is seen as good practice on a national scale."

Awaken, based at Blackpool's central police station, pools police and social work resources, acts on referrals from agencies and individuals, and intervenes if children display risky behaviour.

Something as innocuous as a new mobile phone or smart trainers may spark a visit – and the team has done more than 600 in the last two years.

If there's so much as a sniff of suspicion the child may be taken off the streets and out of the loop.

The team identifies offenders who may prey upon them, then intervenes, apprehends and arrests.

Experience has taught the authorities they need to act before it's too late.

Charlene's case proved a deafening wake up call.

The investigation identified the risks the 14-year-old took in the holiday hinterlands, where predators prey on vulnerable children who consider themselves young adults, yet need to be protected from themselves.

Indeed, for those who have retraced Charlene's last known movements – including her parents Karen and Robert – it's hard not feel the shadow tugging at consciousness and conscience, from the sinister edges of this girl's world.

Charlene slipped through all the safety nets which should have curbed her taste for what turned out to be high risk kicks for a kid with "a chaotic home lifestyle" ... the lure of easy money for amusement arcades, a drink blagged here, some fast food there, at the cost of her innocence and, ultimately, her life.

Charlene's winning smile proved her downfall, police believe, attracting the wrong sort of interest, from predominantly older men.

She vanished without trace three years and 10 months ago after leaving her Buchanan Street, central Blackpool, home.

Could she have been saved? It is a question often asked.

Risks were spotted early by official authorities adept at seeing the telltale signs of a child vulnerable to sexual exploitation by strangers and other dangers.

But all the building blocks of child protection tumbled down after the family of six moved here from the Midlands in 1999. Charlene was then 10.

A report, by the Blackpool Area Child Protection Committee, commissioned after her disappearance, concluded: "It's difficult to see why the route of care proceedings was not pursued."

It went so far as to assert that more decisive intervention, at an earlier stage, giving Charlene access to "more appropriate parenting and effective safeguarding", might have resulted in a "safer outcome".

It was five months before a social worker was formally allocated to the Downes family after moving here – in spite of being warned of the "chaotic home lifestyle" by the previous local authority.

It meant there was no core assessment, no written child protection plan, no contract with parents, and no initial support with parenting and safeguarding.

The report revealed frontline staff lacked "sufficient awareness of the risks particularly in the area of exposure to sexual exploitation," and by "sexually offending adults".

Yet the emphasis shifted from high risk protection in the care of the local authority to deeming the family more in need of community-based support.

And one year seven months later Charlene – of whom concerns continued to be reported – vanished.

Of course, it's easy to be wise in hindsight. It's harder to act upon it – but in waking up to the risks Blackpool has sounded the alarm across the country.

This is not just Blackpool's problem, but one that exists everywhere. "Have no doubt of that," says Det Insp Baxter.

"Blackpool is no worst than any major town or city."

But resort troubleshooters have established a blueprint for best practice which other authorities, including the Met, may adopt.

More than 30 local and police authorities have beaten a path here to learn more about Awaken.

They have left with rave reviews of pooled resources, teamwork, spotting patterns of inappropriate behaviour more quickly, and faster intervention.

Awaken helps others sleep more soundly at night.

There's been a 60 per cent drop in the number of children repeatedly missing from homes since its inception, 36 convictions of offenders (a 98.6 per cent conviction rate), 22 more pending. Awareness is rising. There have been 615 visits, 76 arrests, 152 sexual offence related charges, 78 child abduction act notices served.

That is a lot of children protected.

"Interest from visiting authorities indicates how seriously it's taken," a Blackpool Council spokeswoman said.

Det Insp Baxter added: "We're particularly pleased at the reduction in missings from home episodes among children who have come to our notice previously.

"We're pleased that any sort of referral can trigger a response far faster. Some will disclose they have been sexually exploited, others don't.

"Blackpool has honeypots for kids, some get showered with gifts, groomed. No-one gets anything for nothing – sexual services are expected.

"Kids with low self esteem are targets – easier to flatter, control, and, ultimately, blackmail. They can be theatened. Predators threaten to publish their pictures on the internet.

"These people are paedophiles, child porn is child abuse, some things that happen don't bear thinking about – and offenders are skilled manipulators.

"Awaken brings offenders to justice, but also gives children, displaying risky behaviour, strategies for dealing with it, keeping themselves safe on the streets, with friends, and on the internet.

"The faster we get to people the better we can educate them to deal with the risks they face. We have close contact with schools, health agencies, and other organisations.

"We need to make parents more aware of what their children are about. Some may not have the best start in life themselves – but most want better for their kids. We're here to catch the bad guys and protect the innocent. Awaken helps us do just that, to save children. This is Charlene's legacy."