The government and councils are being called on to do more to protect children at risk of sexual exploitation, following the harrowing case of a 14-year-old Manchester girl who was forced into prostitution.
The girl, who had run away from home, was targeted while wandering the streets, offered alcohol and cigarettes and then sexually abused.
Nine men have been jailed for a sting of offences, including sexual activity with a child, controlling a child prostitute and paying for sexual services, in relation to the case.
Penny Nicholls, director of children and young people at The Children’s Society, says the case highlights the lack of support services being offered by councils to help children who run away from home.
She said: “Sadly this is not an isolated case. Many children and young people run away from home or care each year and all of these children are at risk of sexual exploitation. The lack of support services and the decreasing number of refuge beds only adds to the number of vulnerable children wandering the streets alone.”
The Children’s Society estimates that 100,000 young people under the age of 16 run away overnight each year. One in 12 runaway children is harmed while away from home, the charity adds.
Nicholls also praised the bravery of the victim in this case, as she had to give evidence in court a number of times at separate trials.
Terina Keene, chief executive of the Railway Children, wants to see the government put in place a national “safety net” to protect all vulnerable children, including those at risk of sexual exploitation and runaways.
Keene said: “The network should include everything from universal and targeted work to prevent children running away in the first place, a 24-hour crisis helpline, a UK-wide network of emergency accommodation, to the provision of follow-up support to help reduce the chances of children running away again.”
She added that this latest case also shows the importance of youth workers in targeting and helping hard-to-reach, vulnerable children.
The DfE has said that there are no plans to review support for children at risk of sexual exploitation or develop an action plan at the current time.