How Blackpool has tackled child sexual exploitation since Charlene Downes' murder uncovered a grooming scandal

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on items purchased through this article, but that does not affect our editorial judgement.

When a teenage girl vanished from Blackpool it led to a discovery that would shock the seaside town into action - but have things improved after two decades?

Charlene Downes' disappearance, on November 01, 2003, was a 'wake up call' for the local authorities, but it sparked a positive response.

After discovering that 14-year-old Charlene had been one of many young girls who were being abused by a group of takeaway owners, Blackpool Police joined forces with other agencies to become a leading example of how to crack the problem.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A multi-agency task force, called Project Awaken, was set up in 2004 to help tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE), but campaigners say the problems haven’t gone away.

Protecting children from harm

Project Awaken was nationally praised and highlighted as a positive example of how local authorities should be tackling child exploitation. Since 2004, the task force has identified hundreds of vulnerable young people and protected them from harm, while bringing offenders to justice.

The project involves Lancashire Police working closely with Blackpool Social Care, the Community Safety Partnership and Health care services.

Cllr Lynn Williams, Leader of Blackpool Council said: “The Awaken project established one of the first teams in the country to combine the resources of the police, social services and health to tackle child sexual exploitation.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Blackpool has the highest rate of sex offences in the county

While a lot of work has been done to clean up the town, campaigners argue that there is still a major issue with sex offenders in the resort.

An FOI request to Lancashire Constabulary revealed that Blackpool had the highest reported sex offences across Lancashire over a 12 month period.

Number of sex offences recorded in Lancashire.Number of sex offences recorded in Lancashire.
Number of sex offences recorded in Lancashire. | Lucinda Herbert

A total of 909 incidents were reported between Sept 2022 — Sept 2023. This compares to 812 reports in Blackburn, and 755 in Preston — the two other worst affected towns in the region.

Ronay Crompton is a justice campaigner who first became aware of Charlene’s case in 2019.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As chair of the Justice For Charlene Downes group, Ms Crompton speaks up for vulnerable young people and victims of abuse. “Blackpool Social Services are still failing children to this day”, she said.

On the anniversary of Charlene’s disappearance, the group held a silent protest outside Bickerstaffe House — the Blackpool Council office building - urging them to ‘break the silence on child abuse’.

Ronay Crompton with Julie Bindel, an investigative journalist who supports the Justice For Charlene Downes campaign. Photo credit: Lucinda HerbertRonay Crompton with Julie Bindel, an investigative journalist who supports the Justice For Charlene Downes campaign. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert
Ronay Crompton with Julie Bindel, an investigative journalist who supports the Justice For Charlene Downes campaign. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert | Lucinda Herbert

The protest was also attended by Julie Bindel, an investigative journalist who has previously reported on the ‘shockingly high levels’ of child sex abuse in Blackpool.

While acknowledging that a lot of positive work has been done since Project Awaken was formed, Ms Crompton said there is a lot more that needs to be done for vulnerable young women.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I think they put new policies in but they’ve not developed them over time. As times have started to change they’ve not bothered updating them, they’ve just kept [the same policies].”

Blackpool Council say policies are under ‘constant review’

Blackpool Council confirmed that the Project Awaken is under ‘constant review’, while Lancashire Police said they are doing all they can to support victims, keep them safe from harm and bring those responsible to justice.

Cllr Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council. Photo credit: Lucinda HerbertCllr Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert
Cllr Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert | Lucinda Herbert

Cllr Williams added: “We work constantly to review how we can proactively deal with such hideous acts of exploitation and remain determined to help and protect our young people.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Women don’t report crimes through fear of being ‘victim blamed’

Meanwhile, young women who have experienced sexual harassment often say they do not report incidents to the police as they feel they won’t be taken seriously or fear they will be ‘victim blamed’ by authorities.

Reclaim Blackpool march for safer streetsReclaim Blackpool march for safer streets
Reclaim Blackpool march for safer streets | Lucinda Herbert

Antonia Charlesworth-Stack runs an online map where women can anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment. Stories of abuse against women, some as young as schoolchildren, are plotted on Blackpool’s Street Harassment Map.

Mrs Charlesworth-Stack said that for a variety of ‘complex reasons’, victims often don’t report incidents to the authorities.

Referring to a drink-spiking incident, she said: “I once reported an incident to the police on behalf of someone else and the kind of questions that I was asked were so accusatory — and it wasn’t even me that was spiked.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
It's a myth that groomers are nasty from the get-go, and a victim may not feel like they are being exploited. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert. Model: Sasha Coral.It's a myth that groomers are nasty from the get-go, and a victim may not feel like they are being exploited. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert. Model: Sasha Coral.
It's a myth that groomers are nasty from the get-go, and a victim may not feel like they are being exploited. Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert. Model: Sasha Coral. | Photo credit: Lucinda Herbert. Model: Sasha Coral.

‘I was made to feel at fault for reporting to the police’

An anonymous male describes how he witnessed another man exposing himself in front of a teenage girl. He ‘strongly’ felt that his complaint was not taken seriously by Lancashire Police.

“It was dismissed as drunken high jinks. Those were the words he used. I explained to the officer that I had been told the man exposes himself regularly to this girl, with full knowledge of the parents. I suggested she fit the criteria to be referred to [Project Awaken], but he seemed disinterested. I was made to feel like I was at fault, like I’m just over-sensitive, for reporting the incident.”

Lancashire Constabulary take sexual offences ‘extremely seriously’

Lancashire Constabulary said that they take all reports of sexual offences ‘extremely seriously’ and ‘work to get the victims justice, across all divisions of [the] force’.

Det. Ch. Insp. John McNamara, of Lancashire Constabulary, said: “In Blackpool specifically we have a dedicated Child Sexual Exploitation team working with key partners and other agencies to provide support to victims, keep them safe from harm and bring those responsible to justice.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The force confirmed they have ‘uplifted’ the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences, and Child Protection teams with specialist detectives trained to respond timely and effectively for victims.

“We have clear processes developed with these key partners to identify and uncover risk, and proactively prevent offending”, added Det. Ch. Insp. McNamara. “Of course, our priority in these investigations is the victims, addressing their welfare, and bringing those responsible before the courts.”

What is grooming?

Groomers choose their victims because they are vulnerable in some way — they may offer them friendship and a sense of belonging when they are lonely, or offer them material goods such as cash.

It may feel like a fulfilling relationship to the young person, because they don’t spot the ill intentions or realise they are being exploited.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Abuse is not always obvious

Emma Kenny, a psychologist who worked with victims of grooming gangs in Lancashire and Oldham, claims that it’s an unhelpful myth that all abusers are ‘nasty from the get-go’.

Rather, she says that groomers will engage in ‘love-bombing’ and the abuse is likely to be ‘incremental’.

Mrs Kenny said: “They literally make you feel like the most important person in the world…they fill the gaps.”

She explains how a bias in authority can give groomers the confidence to believe that they will get away with exploiting children, especially those who have been in the care system.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Girls were apparently consensual because that was the mindset of ‘well they’re going therefore they’re culpable’, as opposed to ‘they’re kids, they can’t consent they’ve got no idea of the ramifications on them’. There was this real mindset, where well they’re asking for it. It was like the biggest room of that victim-blame behaviour that we see play out towards women across the system judiciary.”

‘I was just really happy that he took an interest in me’

One anonymous woman shared her story of being targeted by a sex offender in Blackpool. She recalls how she had been ‘bullied terribly’ at school, and felt ‘suicidal’ at the time she was approached by an older man, who is now serving an 8-year jail sentence.

She was 15 at the time he approached her, on a social media app. She said: “I never really got male attention so I was just really happy that he took an interest in me.”

By the time he started abusing her, the man had already gained her trust and friendship.

After a while he started asking for sexual favours.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I still talked to him even though he was begging for pictures or videos of me naked.

He’d buy me gifts and tell me I was pretty and the only girl he wanted. I didn’t realise at the time, but the police still said I was groomed.”

Help and advice

If you have been affected by any of the content in this article, here are some websites that may be able to help you.

https://reclaimblackpoolmap.co.uk/ — an interactive map where victims of sexual harassment can share their experience.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

https://empowermentcharity.org.uk/ — support for a range of issues, including mental health, domestic abuse and care leavers in Blackpool.

https://paceuk.info/ — Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation provide support and advice for parents and carers.

NSPCC Helpline: tel 0808 800 5000 or email [email protected]

Victims of a sexual offence are strongly advised to contact Lancashire Police on 101 or in an emergency, 999. Alternatively, you can report anonymously through the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.