More than 2,000 children 'victims of sex grooming'
The first UK-wide study of street grooming of children has found more than 2,000 victims of systematic abuse.
The ethnicity of around half the offenders was not known but in the remainder a quarter of offenders were Asian and 38% were white.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) warned against focusing on ethnicity over the issue.
Head of Ceop Peter Davies said many local agencies were failing to give victims the support they needed.
The six-month assessment of the scale of "street grooming" was launched after a high profile case saw a number of Asian men convicted of sexually abusing girls in Derby.
Ceop said it had evidence of 230 gangs, mostly young men, who were identifying and grooming children for systematic sexual abuse. Some groups were large enough to be considered organised crime enterprises that were supplying victims to be raped by paying clients.
"This is a horrific kind of crime," said Mr Davies. "It involves systematic, premeditated rape of children and needs to be understood in those stark terms. It needs to be brought out of the dark."
But Ceop's report said that the available evidence was patchy. The review identified 2,083 victims and 2,379 offenders since the start of 2008.
Investigators were only able to establish reliable information about half of the offenders, the majority of whom were aged between 18 and 24.
In almost a third of the remaining cases, agencies had insufficient information to draw any conclusions about ethnicity. Of those that remained, 38% were white and 26% were Asian. The report stressed that this data was poor because in nine out of 10 cases, the research could not detail the meaning of "Asian".
The report said that the majority of victims were white girls - although in a third of cases the ethnicity was not known.
Earlier this year, the former Home and Justice Secretary Jack Straw said that while offenders came from all backgrounds, there was a specific problem of young Pakistani men targeting white girls because they regarded them as "easy meat".
Peter Davies called for child protection agencies to do more to protect victims - and said that the UK needed more thorough and reliable research into what was going on.
"Focusing on the problem simply through the lens of ethnicity does not do it service," said Mr Davies.
He said that many victims were in vulnerable positions, such as in care or involved in petty criminality. That meant many were afraid to come forward because they did not expect to be believed or supported.
And Mr Davies said he was "shocked, surprised and disappointed" at the lack of action in many parts of the country.
Only 13 of 150 Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs), local partnerships involving police and social services, provided information to Ceop. Two-thirds of all LSCBs had failed to set up specialist sub-groups to combat street grooming, as set out in national guidance.
Mr Davies said: "They do not appear to have set up the basic processes that are expected in the national guidelines to tackle child sexual exploitation."
John Grounds from the NSPCC said: "This is an important piece of work. We would like to see better and more consistent data collection and improved training for professionals working in this field.
And Enver Solomon of The Children's Society, said: "For far too long child grooming has been a hidden issue, with dangerous perpetrators targeting vulnerable girls and boys in the shadows of our society.
"The Ceop assessment… highlights that children who run away are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, yet professionals are often unaware of this. Child grooming cannot be addressed without actively looking at the issue of children running away."
Mr Davies said that Ceop would conduct more research into the types of people found guilty and the motivations for their crime. Ministers are preparing a national action plan on grooming while the Children's Commissioner will launch her own inquiry into gangs and sexual abuse.