FORMER Darwen nursery nurse Gladys Rhodes White now occupies the hottest seat in UK childcare – trying to sort out the aftermath of the Rochdale grooming scandal. She spoke to local government reporter Bill Jacobs about how she got there, and why.

In 2006, Gladys Rhodes White faced a life-changing dilemma – what to do about the growing threat to vulnerable girls in Blackburn with Darwen targeted by gangs of predators bent on sexually abusing them.

The evidence was clear. Groups of older males were luring under-age females into a world of sex, drink, drugs and prostitution.

To add to her challenge, these gangs were predominantly Asian and their victims were mainly white.

As assistant director of children’s services reponsible for safeguarding in the borough, she had to make a key decision.

Her staff and the police knew what has happening. But there were some who seemed to want to sweep the issue under the carpet and hope it would go away.

Gladys did not and the result was the Lancashire Telegraph’s groundbreaking Keep Them Safe campaign and the pioneering Engage team.

Engage, for the first time brought together social workers, police, children’s charities, anti-prostitution campaigners, and others to break up the gangs and protect the girls before they got drawn into their web.

Gladys had to persaude an understandably nervous Muslim community on board.

Now 55, she said she had no regrets about her actions: “They were diffucult times and challenging decisions, but it was the right thing to do. We had to protect these young women.

“We had to get the mosques and everyone else on board with what we were doing. Child sexual exploitation is a difficult and complex issue, different from conventional paedophiles.

“These vulnerable girls were persuaded the men exploiting them were their boyfriends and often did not want to give evidence.

“I have no doubt that what we did kept many young women from abuse. It was well ahead of what happened anywhere else.

“Had this system been in place in Rochdale at the same time, other victims may have been saved from harm.”

It’s a long way from the young woman, who came to Blackburn aged five from Paisley, starting out working at Lord Street Nursery in Darwen.

Behind a career that saw a variety of posts for Lancashire County Council across Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale lies her ‘passion for children’. In all her jobs, from caring for under-fives, dealing with troubled or disabled teenagers to deciding policy behind a town hall desk, she has kept a hands-on approach, often going to the front line.

She said: “When I was director of children’s services in Blackburn with Darwen, I used to go to children’s homes and nurseries and they used to say, ‘Watch out, Gladys is about’.

“I am passionate about looking after children. I am drawn to them and they are drawn to me.

“On my visits, and even at weddings and celebrations, I seem to end up talking to them or with them asleep across my knee.”

Between marriages she was a single parent. She said: “I was very lucky with a very supportive ex-husband, but I have some idea of what it is like juggling a job and bringing up children on your own. I understand.”

After a Blackburn town hall shake-up, she took voluntary redundancy and plunged straight into the aftermath of the Rochdale crisis.

She said: “I just wanted to do something. I could bring the experience of what we had done with Engage and some understanding of the problem. What Rochdale is doing now is ahead of what we were doing in Blackburn in terms of disrupting the gangs’ activities using licensing and other powers before they get to their victims.

“We have the Engage team here and can feed what is happening in Rochdale back through them.

“It’s all about protecting the vulnerable young women and tackling this horrible crime.

“I shall stay here until they appoint a permanent director, have a short break and then look at something else. It’s all about my passion for protecting children. I’m not ready to put my feet up.”