Northern Ireland

Barnardo's say NI sexual abuse cases are 'just tip of the iceberg'

Teenage girl
Image caption Young people have told a social worker they are being raped while the authorities argue over the investigation

An investigation into the sexual exploitation of 22 vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland is just the "tip of the iceberg", according to the children's charity, Barnardo's.

It began after a review of cases where young people went missing from the care system over the past 18 months.

The BBC has learned that NI health bosses drew up an action plan to tackle the problem more than three years ago.

However, it was never published or implemented.

The August 2010 document - Strategic Action Plan, Children Missing From Home or Care -was produced by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB). It was later leaked to the BBC.

The HSCB has said many of the recommendations from the plan have already been put in place, but there are concerns about how much information was shared between the police and social services about young people at risk of abuse.

Detectives believe dozens of men have been using care homes in Northern Ireland as a place to find vulnerable girls and boys, in order to groom them for sexual exploitation.

Earlier this month, police said they had identified a group of 22 young people - aged between 13 and 18 - that may have been abused.

Of the 22 cases under examination, 18 involve children in the care system.

They had been recorded as missing a total of 437 times.

Care workers have said they had reported many concerns about men waiting outside residential homes, and they insist they had warned the police when children went missing.

Meanwhile, staff at Barnardo's have said the 22 cases currently being investigated by police are just the "tip of the iceberg".

The charity has at least 50 children and young people on a waiting list to receive help from its Safe Choices counselling service.

Jacqui-Montgomery Devlin, who runs Safe Choices, said the young people on the waiting list had all either been abused, were "at risk of sexual exploitation, and/or going missing".

She said demand for the service had "remained static" despite extra government funding to shorten the waiting list.

The priority now for those involved in safeguarding young people from abusers is not to repeat mistakes.

Tracy Kenny, a senior youth worker, has been working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.

BBC Northern Ireland asked her to ask those teenagers what they thought should be done.

She told us: "They said that they felt very angry because everybody is squabbling and arguing about who's to blame.

"What they're saying is 'while you're arguing between yourselves, we're still getting raped'."

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