Girls as young as 11 could be falling victim to sexual exploitation in Sheffield, shocking new figures have revealed.
Between April and October, 145 youngsters were referred to a specialist city service as being at possible risk of sex abuse - including four 11-year-old schoolgirls.
Sheffield Council stressed the youngsters had been identified as being ‘at risk’ by their parents or professionals and referred for an assessment, and were not actual victims of child sexual exploitation.
The council said in cases where children are younger, abuse may not yet have been committed, so preventative work could be undertaken to stop it in its tracks.
Coun Jackie Drayton, Sheffield Council cabinet member for children, said: “It is a sad fact that with an increasing number of children having access to smartphones, tablets and the internet, children as young as 11 have been identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation, which is extremely concerning.
“However, it is important to be clear that when the risk is reported, we take immediate action to protect the young person, get support in place for them, and prevent the risk turning into actual abuse.
“We can reassure people in Sheffield most of these young people do not go on to be abused.”
Four of the children referred to the service were aged 12, while the highest number of referrals was for youngsters aged 15, with 43 being reported.
The Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, published earlier this year, found children as young as 11 were being ‘raped by large numbers of male perpetrators’.
It is believed young people are being targeted at the age of 11, when they start secondary school.
The new figures – obtained through The Star’s Your Right to Know campaign – showed 10 per cent or 14 of the potential victims were boys.
Fleur Strong, of charity Parents Against Sexual Exploitation, said: “Some people may be shocked children as young as 11 are potentially being groomed, including boys.
“Boys are almost the forgotten victims of child sexual exploitation.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if there are more boys at risk than have been highlighted in the Sheffield figures.
“There’s a perception that if a girl goes missing she is at risk, whereas a boy is in trouble.
“That is something we have to tackle.”
A new report published last week praised city agencies for their efforts in tackling grooming.
Author Dr Kathryn Houghton said she had been ‘extremely impressed’ with the response.
However, she said standards could be improved in 16 ‘areas for development’.
In the past 12 months, 213 children were recorded as being at risk of CSE in Sheffield, a 150 per cent increase on the previous year.
Coun Drayton encouraged anyone with concerns for a young person’s safety to report them.
She said: “We will look into every referral, ensure the right services are in place, and do everything within our power to stop abuse from happening.”
Clive Betts, South East Sheffield MP, who chaired a communities and local government committee into CSE, said: “What Professor Jay said to us was this is happening all over the country.
“We are unfortunately going to get cases of CSE, I think Sheffield has got a strong strategy which won’t stop CSE, but will deal with the complaints properly and get to the point where those who carry out abuse will be prosecuted.”