Middlesbrough grooming case: How big is the iceberg?

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After a group of men were found guilty of sexually exploiting teenage girls on Teesside, child protection experts have warned how dozens of other youngsters in the area are being groomed for sex.

Offers of takeaway food, drugs and free lifts.

Hundreds of messages via Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.

All were ingredients in what has been branded "the big con" used to persuade underage girls to allow older men to take advantage of them in Middlesbrough.

'Sick to the stomach'

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The mother of one of the 14-year-old victims in the Middlesbrough grooming case told BBC News how it affected her life.

"I felt sick to the stomach that a grown man had had sexual intercourse with my baby - at the end of the day she's only a child.

"You could tell she was a child and he knew she was a child. I felt physically sick, so much so that I stopped going to bed and started sleeping in my living room.

"I'm still sleeping there now. I lock my door on a night and I sleep in the living room.

"If anyone tries to get into my house the first person they will be greeted with is me so I know my child is safe, she's upstairs away from it all and she can't get out either.

"It's turned my life upside down, I don't trust anybody anymore."

Taxi driver Shakil Munir, 32, and 17-year-old Ateeq Latif were found guilty of sexually exploiting girls at Teesside Crown Court.

Another man, Sakib Ahmed, 19, admitted his part in the abuse that saw victims "targeted" for sex.

The group were described by prosecutors as "loosely connected" while some of their victims were also known to each other.

Following the trial, which heard evidence in relation to seven alleged victims, experts have conceded the extent of the grooming problem is difficult to measure.

Cleveland Police confirmed it has a number of "live investigations" and the charity Barnado's is aware of at least 160 girls, some as young as 12, currently at risk.

Wendy Shepherd, the charity's children's service manager in the North East, said: "There are over 160 people that we're working with and we're aware of across Teesside.

"This is not one-off sexual abuse of a child within a family, we're talking about groups of men who abuse young teenage girls."

Ms Shepherd said one of the "great problems" is that victims do not realise what is happening to them until it is too late.

"They don't see the grooming," she said.

"They don't see the huge con to get them to have sex with many people at the will of the man that has become their boyfriend.

"They really want to believe in the goodness that actually he wouldn't really treat me that way, he wouldn't want to harm me."

Shakil Munir Taxi driver Shakil Munir denied five charges

Mark Braithwaite, chair of the Middlesbrough Safeguarding Children Board, said it was difficult to judge the extent of the problem because many of those involved often "didn't see themselves as victims".

"Some people, often for the first time in their lives, have received some affection, or what's perceived as being affection, they've been showered with gifts, perhaps mobile phones, drink and drugs in many cases.

"The exploitation starts right at the outset and it's perhaps not until much further down the journey that some of these victims realise that they've been exploited."

Mr Braithwaite acknowledged that although some of the victims were from the same school, grooming on Teesside was far from isolated.

"It is a bigger problem. Not just here in Middlesbrough but elsewhere in the country.

"The difficulty is, how do you assess how big the iceberg is and are you dealing with the tip of the iceberg?

"One thing I'm sure of is that the more proactively you go looking for it, you will find it.

"Any area that says it hasn't got a problem is naïve and isn't looking hard enough."

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