Wake up to the risks ....

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Blackpool has a dark underbelly of sexual exploitation of young girls.

It is almost certain lost girl Charlene Downes, 14, when she went missing from Blackpool in November 2003, was drawn into that vortex.

She was known to frequent town centre honeypots for teenagers – takeaways, restaurants, bars, seafront attractions, and the back alleys bordering such.

She has not been seen since November 2003.

Her disappearance led to the establishment of Operation Awaken, a specific police project targeting predators who seek out vulnerable teenagers, girls – and boys – who may swop sex for food, money, drinks, drugs, or affection.

If Charlene is alive, and her parents Robert and Karen Downes, and police, doubt it, she would be 22 years old in March. The family have moved from their home in central Blackpool, to another address, knowing it is unlikely their youngest daughter will ever knock on their door again.

Two men accused in relation to her disappearance and suspected murder were cleared of the charges. The case remains open.

But in the search for Charlene, police uncovered a squalid sub-culture on Blackpool's streets, and what amounted to endemic child sexual abuse and prostitution in a town once famous for family holidays.

Today, a former Blackpool police chief, goes so far as to suggest another teenager could go missing.

Former Det Supt Mick Gradwell, now an independent consultant, born and raised in Blackpool, where he worked for several years, uses the past tense in reference to the life of Charlene.

"She is almost certainly dead. Don't let there be another."

The former police chief (pictured far right) says there is growing evidence to suggest an element of Asian men are involving in specific sex crimes involving the grooming and exploitation of young girls – individually and as part of gangs.

"I saw that in East Lancashire and would be surprised if it doesn't touch Blackpool," he said.

His comments come as a major investigation is launched into the grooming of vulnerable girls for sex after a string of disturbing cases across northern England and the Midlands.

A specialist child abuse unit is to head the inquiry into the trend of ruthless men targeting youngsters as young as 12, plying them with drink and drugs. It follows the national outcry triggered by former Home Secretary Jack Straw's comments in relation to some Pakistanis seeing white girls as "easy meat".

Blackpool-based Det Insp Tony Baxter, (right), lead officer for Awaken, the joint police and social worker project, stresses the predominant offenders in Blackpool are "white, European males".

He adds: "Sexual exploitation has many forms. While we are not complacent, violent activity of that nature is not prevalent in Blackpool. The gang issue is far more prevalent in the east of the county, where they have a significant black and ethnic minority community.

"We have had problems in the past, and we are always mindful, but the gang issue is not being actively investigated. It's not the preserve of that community. Sexual exploitation is not just about this issue, it's a massively complex area.

"Paedophiles target vulnerable families or care homes, children who congregate at amusement arcades and piers. These are the types we encounter the most in Blackpool. The predominant offenders in Blackpool are white, European males.

"The Awaken Project was a result of Charlene and what we unearthed. It was the result of a tragedy.

"It was one of the first projects of its kind in the country and Blackpool is now seen as national good practice. We have a multi-agency team that looks at enforcement.

"Blackpool has got honeypots but we have no more of a problem in Blackpool than anywhere else in the country. Because Blackpool rolled the stone, we get cases reported to us. Every single English seaside town has the same issues as us."

He said the police receive around 30 "expressions of concern" a month but not all these result in being legitimate cases. He said out of well over 100 cases taken to court by the Awaken Project in the last six years, they have only lost two.

However, Mr Gradwell accuses senior police of "political correctness" in the investigation.

He added: "I think Jack Straw's right. His reference to white girls being 'easy meat' is distasteful, but an element see them that way. The time is right to air the debate because publicity may well prevent a third teenager going missing in Blackpool or anywhere else.

"If we're a big society, the issue should be raised to influence a better society. It is not racial stereotyping – we are talking about a specific trend within the whole broad base of sex offences.

"If race is an issue in any category of crime – and it is in this particular category – it should be raised, otherwise senior police are culpable of helping perpetuate it.

"Lancashire Police would have no problems issuing warnings about illegal trafficking and abuse of very young girls from Eastern Bloc countries, so why we do tread so carefully around the Asian trend?

"No one is saying all Latvians are pimps, just as no one is saying all Asians are offenders, we are merely saying there is a trend that must be explored, investigated and exposed.

"Thanks to what Jack Straw has said, I would suggest that any senior officer who knows this situation exists, yet is not willing to admit it, is culpable of perpetuating the culture in which such behaviour is acceptable. It cannot be swept under the carpet any longer."