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Our four-year fight to protect vulnerable girls in East Lancashire
THE problem of gangs of predominantly Asian men grooming underage girls for sex has just made national headlines.
But the Lancashire Telegraph first uncovered the issue in July 2006 with the launch of our Keep Them Safe Campaign.
Our initial investigation revealed up to 100 East Lancashire girls, aged between 12 and 16, had been targeted by the gangs.
Typically the victims were found to be vulnerable and often went missing from home or care.
First they were showered with gifts and attention.
Then they were given drink and drugs, and then forced to perform sex acts, sometimes on up to 10 men a night.
Speaking at the time, editor Kevin Young said: “We are calling on the whole of the community to get behind this cause and stamp out this sickening practice.”
Keep Them Safe’s aims included raising awareness of the issues, lobbying the government for funding to tackle the problem and increased education of the dangers in schools.
It was backed by the police, social services, children’s charities, community leaders and parents of victims.
Muslim leaders praised the Lancashire Telegraph’s ‘brave decision’ to report on the issue, and said the community was working very hard to tackle the problem.
At this time police were in the early stages of running Operation Engage, their crackdown on the gangs.
Speaking in 2006, then Superintendent Neil Smith said: “This is not a racist issue.
"It is about the exploitation of young girls for sex.
“The majority of cases involve Asian males but there are also a significant proportion of cases involving white men using the internet.”
Since those early days, Engage has grown to become one of the most groundbreaking in the country.
The Lancashire Telegraph helped arrange a conference into the issue in 2007 which saw a clear strategy drawn up between difference agencies.
Months later in March 2008 Engage was re-launched as a full-time body involving police, social services, health groups and children’s charities.
They work together to provide a holistic approach.
Sex offenders are tracked, abused girls offered extensive support and potential victims given guidance to keep them out of the clutches of perverts.
Parents are even given support, while lessons are run in schools to educate youngsters on the techniques of the gangs.
While initially run in the policing division covering Blackburn, Darwen and Hyndburn, a similar project called Operation Freedom was later launched in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale.
Both schemes have been a massive success, but what they have uncovered has been shocking.
Last year police revealed that the Operation Engage team had worked with 385 girls since its March 2008 launch.
One victim was a young as nine, although the typical age range is 13 to 15.
Before Engage just one sexual grooming prosecution had taken place in the area. By last year the total was up to 62.
These include Imran Pervez, 27, of Pendle Street, Accrington, who was jailed for nine years in April 2009 for the rape of a 12-year-old girl.
While those charged were predominantly Asian, there have been a couple of cases involving white offenders.
And, as police tackle the gangs, they find the abusers alter their approach.
Recent fears have included girls being lured to ‘paedophile parties’, where they are abused by a number of men.
Nationally the country is just waking up to the problem.
Some media outlets are claiming that police have turned a blind eye to the crime because of political correctness.
But that is thankfully not the case in East Lancashire.
However, the sheer scale of the problem in this area means there is still much work to do.