Child sexual exploitation by organised networks in England and Wales is “under-reported”, with its prevalence likely to be “much higher” than previously thought, an inquiry has heard.
The latest strand of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard evidence of children as young as 12 who were raped or seriously sexually assaulted yet felt their complaints to police and social services were ignored.
In one case, a girl was abducted and then abused by multiple men with a gun held to her head, and she identified a lack of co-ordination between agencies tasked with protecting her.
In her opening remarks to the latest pillar of the investigation, lead counsel Henrietta Hill QC said: “What seems clear is that cases of child sexual exploitation are under-reported and that the numbers of children affected are much higher than official records would report or suggest.
“We know from research that the big picture is that many thousands of children are sexually exploited each year.”
Ms Hill said police recorded 1,012 offences of abuse of children through sexual exploitation in 2018/19, and 5,900 offences of sexual grooming.
The latest section of the wide-ranging IICSA will explore themes such as the adequacy of risk assessment and protection measures for vulnerable children, whether victims were shown appropriate empathy and concern, and measures taken to successfully disrupt offenders.
It follows a series of high-profile criminal convictions of known abuse and exploitation networks in Oxford, Rochdale, Rotherham and Telford.
Christopher Jacobs, representing retired police detective Jon Wedger, told the inquiry: “My client’s evidence is that child exploitation is happening in plain sight.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, on behalf of the Centre for Women’s Justice, added that evidence “reveals a number of patterns, including multiple ways in which victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation are failed by the state”.
Evidence will come from a number of child exploitation victims, including one girl who was first raped as a 12-year-old.
Junior counsel Antonia Benfield said the girl was still a young teenager when she was “abducted by a group of men and forced to have oral sex with 23 men while a gun was held to her head”.
She was also raped, the inquiry heard.
Ms Benfield added: “She considered she was failed by social services and by the police, she also feels there was a lack of co-ordination between agencies tasked with protecting her.”
Echoing similar concerns, Kim Harrison, counsel for one young victim’s mother, said her client’s daughter was placed in foster care in the same area she had been exploited, consequently causing her to go missing 48 times in 84 days.
The mother added: “Something is clearly wrong.”
In another case, fellow junior counsel Paul Livingstone described how a 14-year-old girl abused by men while in a care home claimed staff “colluded with her abusers” by suggesting the men “collect her by car near the children’s home, rather than outside it”.
The IICSA was set up in 2015 following claims from a complainant known as “Nick” of a murderous paedophile ring linked to Parliament operating in and around Westminster.
Nick, real name Carl Beech, was later discredited and jailed for 18 years for what a judge called his “cruel and callous” lies.
The inquiry has investigated the actions of celebrities, politicians, police, religious groups and schools, among others.
The latest strand of the investigation is due to last for two weeks and will focus on exploitation in six sample geographic areas – Warwickshire, Bristol, Swansea, Tower Hamlets, St Helens and Durham.