Fears over child sex exploitation in UK

By Katie Dawson
BBC News

Image caption, Hundreds of children are thought to be affected by sex exploitation in the UK. Picture posed by model

BBC News investigates child sex exploitation in the UK after a 14-year-old girl was forced into prostitution and sexually abused by a series of men in Greater Manchester.

Susan's 12-year-old daughter had everything a girl of her age could dream of.

She had friends, played the piano and the violin and was dedicated to caring for her pony.

But when she was approached by a group of men as she walked along a street one day, her life changed dramatically.

The group began grooming her for sex by showering her with gifts and making her feel loved.

Eventually they began raping her.

"At first she came home with a new mobile telephone," said Susan, which is not her real name.

"I asked where it had come from and she said friends.

"Then there were gifts, which she said had also come from friends.

"I asked to meet the friends and she said they were not into meeting parents.

"Gradually she got further and further into it."

Susan tried to prevent her daughter from meeting the men - even resorting to trying to lock her in the house - but her daughter would always find a way to escape from her home in the North West.

"I called the police. They just said she was just another runaway, but it was more than that," the mother said.

She said the men introduced her daughter to drugs and took her to a house where other girls were also being groomed.

Susan eventually moved her daughter abroad in order to keep her away from the group, but the teenager continued to get into trouble and take drugs.

"The damage had already been done while she was here," she said.

Her daughter is one of hundreds of children thought to be victims of child sex exploitation in the UK - although exact figures are unknown.

Criminal gangs

On Monday, nine men were convicted in connection with the abuse of a 14-year-old girl who was forced into prostitution by a series of men in Greater Manchester after going missing from her home.

The case highlighted the issue of child exploitation in the UK, prompting charities to express concern that the problem may be greater than people realise.

Children's charity Barnardo's dealt with more than 1,000 cases of child sex exploitation in 20 local authority areas in 2008/2009.

Chief executive Martin Narey said not all cases were as serious as the one in Manchester, but added the problem was widespread.

"About half the children we work with who have been sexually exploited have gone missing," he said.

"Disappearing from school, having gifts which have come from nowhere - mobile phones.

"There are some very telling signs which teachers and others need to be aware of.

"This case was classic."

Suddenly having a new mobile phone, going missing and playing truant from school are all tell-tale signs that a child may be being groomed, said Gill Gibbons, chief executive officer of CROP (Coalition for the Removal of Pimping).

"A lot of perpetrators are criminal gangs," she said. "They use manipulative methods to get the children."

It is not just online methods used to groom children - many perpetrators approach their victims on the street.

Tell-tale signs

"They tend to cruise around places where children gather - outside school gates, cinemas," said Ms Gibbons.

"You might get a young guy who starts to talk to the children and identifies the vulnerable ones.

"They'll start meeting with them over time and slowly embed themselves into their lives."

She said the grooming process could take a matter of weeks or a few months.

"Once they have got the children hooked on them, it's pay back time," she said. "They say 'right now you owe me'.

"Their friends will then pay to have sex with the child. He'll say he is her boyfriend but actually he is her pimp."

Enver Soloman, assistant director of policy at Barnardo's, said there was anecdotal evidence suggesting more organised and sophisticated forms of exploitation - such as in the Manchester case - were emerging.

"The problem is we do not know if this is a new phenomenon because we have never really looked for it," he said.

"It may have been taking place under the radar."

He said public services that deal with children on a day-to-day basis should be made aware of the tell-tale signs and should be trained in how to deal with the issue.

"There needs to be central direction taken so all services have a better understanding of it and then we can start to understand the scale of it," he said.

While it is mainly young girls, aged between 11 and 13, who are targeted by such gangs, boys can also be victims and it can affect children from all types of families.

"It does not matter what your background is - poor, middle class - if they decide they want your child they will have them," said Susan.

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.