Child exploitation 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) will hear evidence from children as young as 12 who were raped or seriously sexually assaulted, who spent time in and out of care homes, yet repeatedly felt their complaints to police and social services were ignored.
In one case, a girl was abused by multiple men with a gun held to her head.
In her opening remarks to the latest pillar of the investigation – the inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual exploitation by organised networks – 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 draw evidence from a range of complainants and organisations to assess how networks including grooming gangs have been able to operate.
It 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 Telford, Rochdale, Oldham, Oxford and Peterborough.
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 told the inquiry: “She was bullied and desperate for affection.
“She was regularly reported missing (from home) and picked up by police, reporting sexual abuse.
“She does not consider meaningful steps were taken.”
Ms 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.”
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.
Although it found no evidence of a paedophile ring in Westminster, it has already found that the political establishment spent decades turning “a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse, with high-profile politicians protected from police action as whips sought to avoid “gossip and scandal” which would damage the parties.
The investigation into organised networks is due to last for two weeks.