'Thousands of children' sexually exploited by gangs
Thousands of children in England are being horrifically abused by gangs, the deputy children's commissioner has said, as she launches an inquiry.
Current estimates say up to 10,000 children could be affected by the sexual abuse, but it is feared the true figure could be much higher.
Sue Berelowitz said: "Right now thousands of children are being horrifically abused by gangs."
She is mounting a two-year inquiry into the scale and scope of the problem.
The exploitation involves children as young as 11 being targeted by groups of men or gangs. They are given gifts and attention, then sold or passed on to others once they are trapped.
The issue reaches across all races and classes, said Ms Berelowitz.'Horrifically abused'
The Child Sexual Exploitation - Gangs and Groups Inquiry (CSEGG) - will attempt to discover how many children are being sexually exploited by both organised gangs and groups of people.
"Children are being failed up and down the country - in every village, town and city," said Ms Berelowitz.
End Quote Sue Berelowitz Deputy children's commissioner
It would also be wrong for anyone to assert that this is an issue for one particular ethnic community”
Maggie Atkinson, the Children's Commissioner for England, described the inquiry as "a wake-up call for us all".
"Emma", who was 12 when she was targeted, said at first she was flattered.
"They then started to get nasty with me, really nasty, it wasn't fun anymore, it wasn't nice. They had full control over me, they got very violent and threatening, I'd get raped one a week, every week. I'd have to sleep with other men as well," she said.
Ms Berelowitz said that although there was a lot of anecdotal research, there was a serious lack of reliable data.
"It is critical to have accurate data in order that government, police, local authorities, the youth justice sector and health professionals can properly identify and protect child victims," she said.
It comes after a University of Bedfordshire report looking at how the sexual exploitation of children is being prevented suggested much more needed to be done.
Three-quarters of England's local safeguarding and child protection boards were not recording information on child sexual exploitation, the report said.Diverse mix
It also concluded that children were coerced into sexual activity in a number of ways including grooming, pressure from a sexually exploited peer or older boyfriend or girlfriend, or pressure from young people in a gang-affected neighbourhood.
Children in local authority care were more than four times as likely to face sexual exploitation than those who were not.
A snapshot survey of 33 out of 144 local authority areas identified more than 1,000 children being sexually exploited on just one day.
And the Office of the Children's Commissioner believes that gang and group-related sexual exploitation is a risk in all parts of the country.
"It would also be wrong for anyone to conclude or assert that this is an issue for one particular ethnic community," said Ms Berelowitz.
"The emerging demographic of the children and perpetrators involved is very diverse and seem to reflect the local demographic of where the abuse is taking place."Corrosive problem
Rebecca Einhorn, of the NSPCC's Street Matters project, which is based in London and works with children who have been sexually exploited, welcomed the inquiry.
"Many girls' lives are seriously damaged by gangs who run this type of grooming," she said.
"It is a corrosive problem that needs serious research and action to help those affected.
"Each year we work with up to 250 girls - four out of five of them have been snared by these predatory offenders.
"We know this type of sexual abuse affects many communities across the UK and has a devastating impact on the young victims.
"But hopefully this inquiry will give us a clearer picture of just how big the problem is and help those working in the field find solutions to protect these vulnerable children."
Barnardo's chief executive, Anne Marie Carrie, said: "Sexually exploited children are right under our noses, yet many are still slipping through the net.
"In this telling new research, it is abundantly clear that, despite victims being amongst the most vulnerable children in society, we still have a long way to go to save them from the clutches of these vile abusers.
"We need to act now to stop more children being failed."
The investigation team will gather evidence from police, local authorities and health and youth justice workers until early next year, publishing an interim report in July.
The final report will be released in September 2013.
Meanwhile, the government is due to publish its strategy for dealing with the problem in November.