For three years, Marlon’s night-time routine was different to most dads. Instead of kissing his teenage daughter goodnight, he was driving around Manchester at dawn desperately looking for her.
Content warning: This article contains details of child sexual abuse
“I’d drive around most nights until three or four o’clock in the morning,” he says.
“One time, I found her at a property. It was midnight, the middle of winter. I contacted the police and they said someone would be there in 10 minutes. I was still there at 4am waiting for them to turn up.”
Marlon first contacted Sky News a year ago. His daughter Scarlett was repeatedly going missing, often just for an evening, but sometimes for up to two weeks.
She had shown him threatening text messages she had received – including a video of bullets being loaded into a handgun and fired out of a car window.
Among the intimidating messages was one that read: “Because you’re ignoring me, I’m coming to shoot your dad.”
Then a man wearing a black balaclava delivered a menacing letter to Marlon’s house – his presence was captured on the CCTV installed above the front door.
Marlon, from Hyde in Greater Manchester, was convinced his daughter was being sexually exploited but claims no one would listen.
“Numerous times, police officers have told me they’ve got more important cases to deal with,” he says.
Police shouted at father
At a meeting with the Greater Manchester Police missing persons team, Marlon says he was shouted at and told to stop reporting his daughter missing.
“At the time when that happened, she was 14 years old.”
Scarlett, now 18, has waived her anonymity to talk about what was really happening. Her father’s worst fears were right, she was being sexually exploited by older men.
She says she first reported being physically and sexually assaulted by a gang aged 14.
She felt the police didn’t investigate properly. Her behaviour became more unstable and erratic, and she was an easy target for a groomer, in this instance a woman, who befriended her and led her into sexual exploitation by older men.
She would find herself waking up in hotel rooms, often with injuries, after getting drunk and being given drugs.
“I’d wake up and there would be loads of bruises on my legs and I didn’t know where they’d come from, but they were big bruises,” she says.
Images show her with bruises on her legs and face.
“I’d see things in the morning like condoms on the side, sex toys, big bottles of vodka, cocaine packets,” she says.
She doesn’t always recall exactly what happened but remembers her ‘friend’ going into the shower with one of the men, while another man stayed in the bedroom with her.
Scarlett knows that she was sexually exploited and has nightmares about it.
Sometimes she wakes screaming for her father. The recurring dream is of a shadowy man in her bedroom.
Befriending gang who beat me up changed everything: Scarlett’s story in her own words
I know now I was being groomed. But it’s hard to accept when it’s happening to you.
I was happy at school and had a good friendship group. I had a horse called Jasper. I’d ride him every day.
When I was 14 I got diagnosed with ADHD and around the same time I got jumped by a gang of youths.
They battered me, set fire to my hair and pulled a knife out on me. I felt helpless. Everyone was scared of them – they were well known. I decided it was better to be friends with them than enemies.
This was the point that my life started to drastically change.
I saw things after that that previously I had been oblivious to – they took weed, cocaine, pills, MDMA and balloons. They carried machetes and bats. They would set fire to things. They’d even throw snowballs at old ladies. They had no respect. But everyone looked up to them and it felt like ‘the thing’’ to do.
They were allowed out until really late. It made me think their parents were great and my dad was a d*******.
Soon I started to play up in school. Until this point I had never skived. But now I found myself answering back and being the class clown.
Over the next few months the gang started to split up, some went to jail, some went to secure units and others got moved out of the area.
A few months later I met an older girl who introduced me to the people she associated with, who were her age or older. And that’s how I got involved.
It felt like having a good time, partying, being with older people, being driven around in fast cars. It made me feel better about myself – until I was in crashes and being pulled over by the police. But by that time it was hard to get out of.
I started going missing, and kept getting caught with older guys, doing drugs and going to hotels, getting off my face. I was having sex with some of the men. All sorts of different things. I was made to eat cigarette butts.
I remember waking up once and they were all having a party. It was Thursday and I’d gone to sleep on Tuesday. I just thought: ‘What could have happened to me in those two days, for all these people to be around me?’
By now I was getting involved in drugs. Drugs worry me more than the sexual exploitation. It’s a lot bigger – the violence that comes with it. They don’t care if someone gets killed for money.
I didn’t realise how bad it was at the time. I genuinely thought I was safe.
Grooming a person, to me, means that you get into their brain and find a weak spot you can use for your own needs. It doesn’t have to be sexual.
I used to get so angry about it – if you mentioned the word grooming to me I would explode. I didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable.
Social workers or the police would say to me, ‘you’re getting groomed’ but then do nothing about it.
For years I said this didn’t bother me, I just thought, ‘it isn’t anything special to talk about’, because I didn’t think anyone would be interested in what was happening to me.
It all continued for months and I felt as if I’d lost myself.
Talking about the future is hard for me as my school and social life have been put on pause. My friends are starting uni now and I didn’t even finish school.
I hope for a happy, healthy life and would like a job that helps people who have had a similar experience to mine. But I know I have some hills to climb first.
“The first few times dad reported me missing I feel like they (the police) took it seriously because I’d never been reported missing before,” she says. “It was so out of character for me.
“And then, it was as though, after more phone calls the police officers would say ‘oh I know you. I hear your name on the radio all the time’.
“Even if I’ve not met them, they’ll say, ‘oh we’ve heard of you’. I think they were just sick of my name coming up to be honest. So, the police just feel like I’m a problem to them.”
Officers refused to arrest suspects
Even when she was picked up in cars with older men and her father reported her missing, Scarlett says officers lacked curiosity and if they’d bothered to search the car, they would have found drugs and a machete.
“The police wouldn’t even arrest them. We’d be in a car park at 3am. It’d just be: ‘What are you doing here?’
“They just took me home to my dad and said: ‘She’s been found in a car in a car park with older guys’. There were never any questions of ‘why are you acting like this?’
“The police would say to me, ‘give it five minutes ’til we’ve left, cos we know you’re going to go again, so just wait ’til we’ve gone’.”
Scarlett admits she would go back to her groomer.
She didn’t trust the police. She felt the authorities were sick of her, and she didn’t seem to understand she was being exploited because she thought it was “normal”.
“In the back of my head I knew it wasn’t right, but I just kind of ignored it because everyone else did,” she says.
Once, after her father reported her missing, officers arrived at his home in the dead of night.
CCTV captured one of the men telling the other to give ‘just a little tap’ on the door.
Marlon thinks it’s because they didn’t want to get involved. He didn’t hear them, and only knew they had visited from the images on his CCTV camera.
As a senior health worker who understands child safeguarding, Marlon knew the protocols to rescue his daughter from her groomer, which included trying to get a recovery order and what is called a Child Abduction Warning Notice (CAWN), which puts an alert out on a particular individual who might be a threat to a child.
But in a text exchange a social worker told Marlon that social services could not apply for a recovery order because his daughter had been put into care, neither could they apply for the warning notice because, they claimed, that was the responsibility of the police.
But the police texted back that it was in fact social services who would need to apply for a recovery order.
Marlon felt desperate and as if nobody was willing to help.
“While my daughter was missing from home for two weeks and being more traumatised by the experience of being groomed and sexually exploited, they just saw me as a problem, as a parent who gave them earache.”
Abduction notice took three years
It would be another three years before the police imposed a CAWN on the person who was allegedly grooming Scarlett.
Meanwhile, she was struggling to cope and the person she took her anger and upset out on was the person most trying to help her.
“I used to get so angry with my dad,” she says.
“I’d flip out at school because my emotions were all over the place. My way of dealing with it was to explode – it was like a volcano erupting.”
As a result of these outbursts, Scarlett ended up in the care system from which she also went missing.
If there is one thing she would like to tell her younger self it is that everything her father did was to keep her safe.
“I realise why he did it now,” she says, revealing a mind map she had drawn to convince care staff to let her move back in with her father.
“I used to get so angry with him sending all these emails and [arranging] all these meetings and I used to think ‘You’re an idiot. You’re embarrassing yourself. What are you doing? Because the police aren’t listening to you’.”
Sharing story to help other victims
Scarlett is sharing her story now because she wants people in that situation to know they have a choice and they can get out.
“I didn’t think anyone would be interested in what’s happened to me,” she says.
“Speaking out like this now, someone else might think ‘I’ve been in the same situation as her’ and there are things you can do, not just stay silent and suffer.”
Greater Manchester Police’s head of public protection, Detective Chief Superintendent Michaela Kerr, said safeguarding vulnerable young people is of “the highest importance” to the force.
“In recent years and in recognition of previous failures, the force has worked hard to ensure the consistent delivery of outstanding service, which fights crime; keeps people safe; and cares for victims. This work is ongoing,” she said.
“In relation to this case, GMP’s Professional Standards Branch and senior officers from the Tameside district have reviewed complaints.
“These have been resolved directly with the complainant and none of the outcomes have, so far, been appealed.
“The force and relevant partner agencies continue to work closely on this case and in relation to safeguarding generally.”
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A Tameside Council spokesperson said they were legally unable to comment on Scarlett’s case.
But they said: “Where any concerns or issues are raised we work closely with individuals, families and our partners to provide support and resolve, as appropriate.
“Where individuals aren’t satisfied with the services received, we do have a statutory complaints procedure and individuals can ultimately take their complaint to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman.”
Scarlett lost her childhood and much of her education.
Four years on from when it began, she is back with her father, who has paid for her to have therapy. They now have each other, but little faith in anyone else.