Over the past year, the Office of the Children's Commissioner has sought to uncover the scale of the sexual exploitation of children by gangs and groups across England. Each child we have spoken to as part of this work has had his or her own particular story. Many have been left with physical injuries and serious mental health problems. They also often feel isolated and alone, and blame themselves for the relentless abuse that they may have faced over months, and sometimes years.
As one young person said to us: "I thought I was the only one - the only one in the world." The report published today, which uses this quote as its title, puts the experiences and interests of children at the heart of our evidence, and demonstrates categorically that thousands of children are abused by gangs and groups across England each year.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry has shown that from August 2010 to October 2011 at least 2,409 children were sexually exploited by gangs and groups across England. Each of these children consistently displayed warning signs that they were being harmed: some were repeatedly going missing; others self-harming; some repeatedly contracted sexually transmitted infections; many suffered physical injuries; their appearance deteriorated rapidly; some engaged in offending; and others were misusing drugs and alcohol. When professionals are alert to these signs, victims are identified. In areas that are adopting a proactive approach to protecting children from sexual exploitation, these warning signs are used to find and rescue children. However, in areas that are waiting for children to come forward and tell someone that they are being abused, victims are not being identified.
The inquiry also identified that at least 16,500 children showed three or more warning signs linked to child sexual exploitation from April 2010 to March 2011. One girl, "Teegan", told us she was sexually exploited from the age of 12. By 13 she was being taken to "parties" across England where she would be raped by several men who paid to use her. Men would choose which girls they wanted, paying those who exploited this girl up to £500 for an hour with her. Following the abuse, she took several overdoses, was placed in secure accommodation, and self-harmed by cutting herself, sometimes on a daily basis.
Another girl, "Rochelle", said she was sexually exploited by a street gang over two years. They would routinely steal her mobile phone and then tell her that if she wanted it back she would need to meet them. When she did so, she would have to perform oral sex and was raped. Instances of abuse were filmed and she was threatened with this footage being circulated around her school. The young men abusing her would communicate using an instant messaging service, and use it to invite other members of the gang to take part in the abuse.
To an extent, any child can become a victim of sexual exploitation, but some are more vulnerable than others: among them are children who are living in chaotic or dysfunctional households or homes where there is domestic abuse; children with a history of abuse or who are at risk of forced marriage or honour-based violence; children who have experienced a recent and significant bereavement of a parent, sibling or friend; and those children living in gang-affected neighbourhoods. The vast majority of children who are sexually exploited are living at home when the exploitation begins, but a disproportionate number live in care. It is essential that preventative action, and additional protective measures, are taken to secure the safety of children who are particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited.
Stereotypes about the victims result in children slipping through the net. Boys and young men, children with disabilities and ethnic minority children have all been missed by some professionals who are looking for particular characteristics, such as white girls. What they need to do is to take note of the list of warning signs published in the report, be alert to children who show these signs, and then act to protect the children where required.
Waiting for children to tell will not suffice. Many children are quite rightly frightened for their personal safety, and the safety of their families. We have spoken to children who have physical injuries, who have been threatened with weapons, and who live their lives in constant fear. These same children have also said that there were clear signs that they were being abused but that nobody asked questions. It is imperative that professionals, parents and carers ask and listen to children whoever they are, or wherever they come from.
Sue Berelowitz is Deputy Children's Commissioner for England