The disappearance of 14-year-old Charlene Downes in Blackpool in 2003 exposed shocking levels of child sexual abuse and neglect in the run-down seaside town.
Two years later, police told Charlene’s parents, Bob and Karen, that they believed Charlene was dead and that she had probably been murdered downtown on a November night within hours of her last sighting.
Charlene was described by her mother as “a bubbly girl who liked laughter, Westlife and fashion” and looked young for her age.
I first met Bob and Karen in 2005.
I have never forgotten the tragic details of the story, and one of its worst aspects was how terrible Charlene’s life was before her disappearance.
Charlene had three siblings: Emma, Becki and Robert Jr. Young Robert died of a heroin overdose two years ago.
During the search for Charlene, more than 3,000 people were interviewed and police became aware of the large number of vulnerable girls – some as young as 11 – being targeted by male sex offenders in Blackpool.
There’s a dark underbelly of sexual exploitation in the city, and some of these girls hang out in an alley lined with snack bars popular with teenagers.
Several girls were sexually abused there in exchange for food, cigarettes and alcohol. In the period before her disappearance, Charlene was sexually abused there by one or more men.
“Poor child deserves a place to rest”
Kebab shop owner Mohammed Reveshi and his business partner Iyad Albattikhi were charged with Charlene’s murder in 2007, but the trial was abandoned when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Both men were ultimately acquitted of the charges.
The case, not against her, is still open, but nothing seems to be happening.
The Justice for Charlene Downes campaign group was founded by Ronay Crompton, 45, a former youth and community worker from Bradford.
She tells me: “I watched a documentary about the case in 2019 and became obsessed with what had happened to Charlene.
“We now have 4,000 members from all walks of life, but what unites us is the desire for justice for Charlene and all other children like her.”
I’m meeting Ronay in Blackpool on Wednesday November 1st, on the 20th anniversary of Charlene’s disappearance.
She brought with her a 6-foot-tall banner that read, “Break the Silence on Child Abuse,” and a school photo of Charlene, whose blonde hair frames a sweet, smiling face.
As the banner is hung between two lampposts, appropriately in front of the main social services building in the city center, several people stop to thank Ronay and the other members of the campaign group.
A woman shouts: “Hang on! This poor child deserves a place to rest.”
Blackpool used to be a lovely seaside resort where my family holidayed every year.
But over the decades it has become a living hell for children.
It is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, with in some districts more than 50 per cent of children living in poverty.
The number of children in care is three times the national average, while Blackpool and Lancaster are home to more than 1,252 registered sex offenders.
Last year, Blackpool also had the highest number of sexual offenses reported to the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.
A wealth of evidence shows Charlene was known to social services from an early age, both in the West Midlands and after the family moved to Blackpool.
Social workers decided twice that Charlene should be placed in the care of local authorities.
There was no space available the first time.
In the second case, she was allowed to stay with her family.
And despite all the racist claims of the British National Party, the people who initially either mistreated or abandoned Charlene were of their own race, their own culture.
On the day their daughter disappeared, her parents were apparently too busy taking in a man who later turned out to be a convicted pedophile to call the police, which her mother waited two days to do.
Your guest had pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual abuse of ten-year-old children.
The parents later said they knew nothing of his conviction.
Many locals have turned their backs on Karen and Robert.
Some men put down their drinks in protest as he enters the bar.
Robert was hit by a car and beaten several times, although the parents say they are in no way responsible for Charlene’s tragic death.
When Charlene started smoking at 14, her mother wondered where she got the money for cigarettes – and then she started dropping out of school.
In the two years before her disappearance, unbeknownst to her parents, Charlene had visited a sexual health clinic 13 times, once with deep bruising on the inside of her thighs.
Robert Jr. died two years ago at age 30 from his suspected drug overdose.
In 2019 he was jailed for attacking his mother.
In 2014, police offered a £100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Charlene’s case.
In August 2017, a 53-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder.
He was released pending further investigation but remains under investigation.
Dr. Kirsty Bennett, a criminologist at Leeds Trinity University, works in the cold case department and is carrying out an independent review of Charlene’s case.
She says it is “disappointing” that there has been little progress 20 years after Charlene’s disappearance.
Dr. Bennett added: “Charlene continues to fail and no one will be held accountable for her abuse and exploitation.
“This is a young girl who is facing abuse in the community.
“More work needs to be done for girls like Charlene, both past and present.”
For Ronay: “There are a lot of lost and lonely people in Blackpool and they want to do something to help.”
Charlene is often portrayed as a victim of “Asian grooming gangs” – but there is no evidence of such gangs operating in Blackpool.
At the memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of Charlene’s disappearance, organized by her family, I see Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, a far-right activist and founder of the English Defense League.
With him is Paul Golding from the racist organization Britain First.
Along with the British National Party, which funded a memorial plaque for Charlene in 2011 and has regularly interviewed Karen Downes for its website, these groups insist that “Asian grooming gangs” are responsible for the majority of child sexual exploitation in Blackpool and elsewhere .
There is little doubt that Charlene was one of the many girls who frequented the takeaways in the infamous alley and were sexually abused for money.
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“Perhaps the saddest part of this story is how Charlene failed in life, as she has for the last 20 years. “She was failed by every single agency that should have helped her and stopped the abuse,” says Ronay Crampton.
“It’s as if girls like Charlene, who are considered lower class and come from problem families, are the forgotten children.”