16,500 children at risk of serious sexual exploitation

A report published today says there are thousands of children at risk of sexual and violent abuse at the hands of organised criminal gangs.

Maggie Atkinson, the children's commissioner for England, recommended much closer cooperation between groups looking after vulnerable children, quicker action after warning signs and greater use of preventative intervention.

"This report is a wake-up call. Each and every one of us owes it to all victims to be vigilant, to listen and to act to stop the sexual exploitation of children," she said.

"Identifying the warning signs listed in the report is the first step to identifying and protecting children."

The report, called 'I thought I was the only one,' is the result of a two year investigation into child exploitation and includes graphic accounts from abused girls.

It says agencies responsible for children's care should be more aware of warning signs such as: missing from home, care or school, repeated sexually transmitted infections, patterns of offending, misuse of drugs or alcohol, self harm and other physical injuries.

However, parts of the report have been labelled as "hysterical" by the government.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that the government needed to act on the back of the report's findings.

"The evidence from the office of the children's commissioner of the extent of child exploitation and abuse is deeply disturbing and must act as a wake-up call to the government and other agencies that urgent action is needed," she said.

"This report shows thousands of children right across the country are already known to have been sexually exploited, raped or abused while many more are vulnerable and need better protection."

Atkinson said this morning that it was likely that the number of children abused each year far exceeds the 2,409 victims included in the report.

She also suggested that it was hard to link the groups to race as she did not have information on the ethnicity of six out of ten of those involved.