Child grooming occurs 'in every town', charity says
Young people are currently being groomed in "every town" in Britain, according to a charity.
Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) says "thousands" of children are affected and police forces lack skills to deal with such abuse.
A report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found at least 1,400 children were abused over two decades.
The National Child Protection Working Group says police are dealing with an "unprecedented" number of abuse cases.
Child sexual exploitation can take place when a young person is manipulated by an adult into sex following a process of "grooming", involving being given gifts and being distanced from their parents.
Children may then be sexually assaulted by networks of adults over a number of years and can be shamed or intimidated out of reporting the crime.
Long lasting effects
Pace specialises in helping parents whose children have been sexually exploited.
Its director Fleur Strong told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "a significant number" of families were currently trying to cope with a child being sexually exploited.
She said: "I can show you families from Torquay to Exeter to Norfolk, there are families in Edinburgh, Belfast, all of them who will be suffering from this type of crime that lasts for many families for years and years.
"I would say that without doubt there are thousands of families being affected today. This type of child abuse is in every town."
In September, West Yorkshire Police began a fresh investigation into the case of a girl who was groomed from the age of 13 and was trafficked to towns in the region.
Her mother, who for legal reasons can only be identified as "Sarah", said the process began in 2007 and her "world fell apart" because of her daughter's ordeal.
"We used to beg her not to go out, because she was begging and pleading and then actually took a knife to herself and said she would harm herself if she couldn't get out of the house," Sarah explained.
"These men had such a hold over her, that was it, they had her."
Sarah said she repeatedly called the police but no proper action was taken and on occasions her daughter and the family were themselves "blamed".
"Some officers would say [to her daughter]: 'What do you keep going back for, you must like what you are doing.'
"I was absolutely appalled, absolutely disgusted."
Sarah's daughter fell pregnant to one of the perpetrators. None of the men who groomed her has so far been caught.
Sarah now says she has "drawn a line" under the previous response from the police and is now satisfied her daughter's case is being fully investigated.
West Yorkshire Police admitted it had been "slow" in the past to recognise the signs of child sexual exploitation, but said that was now one of the highest priorities for the force.
It is currently investigating 84 cases of alleged grooming of children.
Assistant Chief Constable Russ Foster said: "Fundamentally we have changed the way that we've dealt with victims.
"Survivors will be listened to, they will be taken seriously and we will support them and ensure that we maximise every opportunity to bring these perpetrators to justice."
After the scale of exploitation in Rotherham was revealed, the UK's senior police officers are now more aware of the challenges involved in investigating grooming, according to Pace.
But the charity says that front-line officers still need better training to understand how to recognise the signs of child sexual exploitation.
The organisation also criticised the legal cut-off age for Child Abduction Warning Notices, which can be used by parents in England and Wales to try to prevent a named adult having contact with their child.
Once a child living at home turns 16, the warning notices no longer have effect.
Pace highlighted the case of a 16-year-old girl in Exeter, who was allegedly groomed by men who gave her so-called legal highs.
The charity says the girl's mother "is having a very difficult time" as a Child Abduction Warning Notice can no longer be used.
Detective Superintendent Paul Sanford, spokesman for the National Child Protection Working Group, said the number of abuse cases being investigated was stretching police resources.
He added that this "presents a real challenge to the police service, both in terms of finance and the number of trained and experienced personnel we need to investigate all of these cases".
"The Children's Commissioner estimated that some 16,000 children are at high risk of being exploited for sex across our towns and cities. This is unacceptable, and we are committed to doing all we can to root it out and prevent any more of the young and vulnerable becoming victims."