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Campaign helps 180 East Lancashire sex victims
A CRACKDOWN on the sexual exploitation of children is celebrating a ‘momentous’ first year after helping 180 potential victims.
And one of the children referred to Engage - a partnership of police, social services, health groups and children’s charities - was aged just nine.
The crackdown was set up last March after the Lancashire Telgegraph’s Keep Them Safe campaign highlighted the problem of girls being groomed for sex by older men.
Officials said the nine-year-old was an exception, with most youngsters referred being between 13 and 15 years old.
And while the majority of cases have been girls, the team has helped a small number of boys.
Before Engage was set up there had been just one prosecution of sexual grooming suspects. Since there has been 25.
Police said the early identification of at-risk children had also helped bring down the number of under 16s reported missing from home by 30 per cent.
The figures mainly relate to the Blackburn with Darwen, although the scheme has recently been extended Hyndburn and the Ribble Valley.
A similar team, called Operation Freedom, was later set up for Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale. No figures are yet available for its work.
Detective Inspector Mark Whelan, who leads Engage, said: “Having so many children referred is testament to the fantastic work the team is doing and suggests there was a real gap in provision beforehand.
“But the 180 referrals we have seen have not all been sexual exploitation. We have to check out every report we have to see if the fears are well-founded.”
The pioneering work has attracted national attention and won support from Barnardo’s, which has put two workers into the team.
Lancashire County Council has also put forward a social worker who will be based in Hyndburn and Ribble Valley but linked to the central team.
Laurence Loft, chair of Blackburn with Darwen’s Local Safeguarding Board, said: “It has been a momentous first year for the Engage team and we are delighted that we can now put in the final piece in the jigsaw by bringing Hyndburn and Ribble Valley on board.
“We will never know how many children we have saved.
"But by addressing the issue of sexual exploitation head on, Engage is achieving justice for victims and this sends out a very clear message to offenders that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated.”
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