Lancashire

Blackpool teen Charlene Downes' mum in grooming gangs warning

Charlene Downes Image copyright Lancashire Police
Image caption Charlene Downes disappeared on 1 November 2003

The mother of a teenager who police believe was murdered when she went missing 15 years ago has issued a warning about grooming gangs.

Police believe Charlene Downes is one of a number of girls who were sexually exploited in Blackpool.

The 14 year old disappeared near the town's North Pier on 1 November 2003, but has never been found.

Her mother Karen, said: "I'd like to think grooming isn't an issue in Blackpool anymore, but it probably is."

Despite arrests, trials and a £100,000 reward no-one has been convicted of Charlene's murder.

In 2009, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said police evidence-gathering errors contributed to the retrial's collapse.

A man was cleared in 2008 after "grave doubts" were raised about evidence during his second trial. The jury in his first trial had failed to reach a verdict.

In 2009, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said police evidence-gathering errors contributed to the retrial's collapse.

Image caption Karen Downes would like to open a youth club in Blackpool to support vulnerable teenagers

Mrs Downes has now written a book in the hope it will give others "a wake-up call about the grooming gangs in the hope it never happens to any other family".

She said she was "still haunted by the horrors I heard in court".

"[But], I'll never give up fighting for justice for Charlene," she said.

"It just seems like yesterday that she skipped out of the door and went on her way, it's an image I cling on to."

In 2017, a 51-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder, but later released.

Mrs Downes believes grooming is still an issue, but there is more help for vulnerable youngsters, including the Awaken project, launched after Charlene disappeared.

The scheme, jointly run by Blackpool Children's Services and police, aims to protect vulnerable children and young people under the age of 18 who are sexually exploited.

Mrs Downes said it is a "very successful legacy to Charlene".

"And if ever I get the chance I would like to open a youth club in Charlene's memory to help young people with counselling," she said.

"They would have things to do and get special support and it would take kids off the street so they wouldn't be tempted by grooming gangs."

Det Ch Insp Richard McCutcheon, of Lancashire Police, said the force "remains committed" to the case.

"We will continue to not only focus on her disappearance and murder but also on the wider issue of child sexual exploitation in Blackpool, for which we have now secured a number of successful convictions against men who have abused vulnerable teenage girls," he said.

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