Major investigation into sexual exploitation of young people in care
Police have begun a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children and young people who have gone missing from care in Northern Ireland.
The police have identified a group of 22 young people "who may be at risk".
It follows a PSNI review of cases where young people have gone missing from the care system over the last 18 months.
It is claimed that vulnerable young people were taken to parties organised by groups of men.
They were plied with alcohol and given gifts before being assaulted.
The abuse is thought to have taken place outside care homes.
The police would not reveal details of individual cases, but in a statement, they said officers had become "increasingly concerned about the issue of child sexual exploitation following an internal review.
"As part of this review, we have identified a group of 22 young people who may be at risk from child sexual exploitation and are seeking to identify those who may have committed crimes against them."
Pam Hunter of the charity Nexus, which offers counselling to victims of abuse, said: "It's a shocking news story.
"The whole thing about this crime is that people groom you and entice you with gifts and money and you think you're walking into this voluntarily, but it is a crime.
"Hopefully the police are working hard to catch these criminals, because it needs to be stopped and stopped now."
BBC NI reporter Chris Page said officers believed that although the case was complex there was enough evidence to go ahead and launch an investigation.
It is believed social services staff are working with the police on the investigation, and the children's charity Barnardo's will support them.
The police have said they want to raise awareness of the issue to identify any young person who may be at risk, and ensure they are protected.
They have asked for victims of child exploitation or anyone who has concerns about a young person at risk to come forward.
The abuse investigation is due to be discussed at Stormont on Monday, in a joint meeting of the assembly's health and justice committees.
Health Minister Edwin Poots and Justice Minister David Ford are due to attend the meeting which was called by the justice committee chairman, Paul Givan.
Mr Poots said his staff would do all they could to deal with these allegations.
Mr Givan described the reports of child sexual exploitation as "gravely disturbing".
"The horrors of these crimes leave us only to pray for the victims and work towards ensuring the perpetrators are brought to justice.
"The public will be deeply concerned at this development and need to hear from the relevant authorities as to what has happened," the DUP MLA added.
Mr Givan said the meeting would provide "an opportunity to probe what actions are being taken to investigate and bring to justice those responsible".