POLICE are investigating 14 cases of sexual exploitation among teenage girls in what campaigners are insisting is just “the tip of the iceberg”.
All of the suspected cases involve Edinburgh children but none of the incidents involve schools, children’s homes or other council-owned premises.
Child safety officers have stressed while there was no evidence of “large-scale or co-ordinated” abuse the true extent of the issue is often more widespread because many incidents never come to the attention of the authorities.
Campaigners say there could be pupils who are victims of sexual exploitation in secondary schools across Lothian.
They warned that exploitation and grooming often involved adults known personally to youngsters and said they had heard of girls being targeted by a school janitor in one case and a friend’s father in another.
Exploitation is defined as situations in which young people are given food, alcohol, drugs, money or even affection in exchange for performing, or allowing themselves to be subjected to sex acts. Jan Macleod, manager at the Women’s Support Project, said: “It’s very much the tip of an iceberg.
“I don’t believe it’s beyond the bounds of belief that you would get instances in a normally sized secondary school.
“Through the work we’ve done with teachers and youth workers, there’s not a shadow of a doubt that it’s a major concern – whenever you have vulnerable young people, you’ll have sexual exploitation.
“One of our concerns is that people are overlooking abuse by local people, including people in the family. We’ve seen a number of reported cases online where the abusive adult knows the child well.”
An 18-year-old man has been charged in connection with incidents involving three of the girls, which all occurred in private houses.
Campaigners and welfare workers said abuse could often occur through the use of technology – for example, being persuaded to post sexual images online or via smartphones.
In all cases, abusers have power over their victims because of age, gender, intellect, physical strength, money or other resources.
Alison Todd, chief executive of Children 1st, said: “The issue is not about numbers – one child at risk is one child too many.
“All agencies in Scotland are working together to address child sexual exploitation. We need to ensure lessons are learned from the past to prevent exploitation in the future.”
A spokeswoman for Police Scotland said: “We have been working with partners to assess and investigate reports we have received involving a number of young people.
“On conclusion of the investigation, an 18-year-old man has been reported to the Procurator Fiscal in connection with sexual offences committed against three teenage girls. The incidents all occurred within private accommodation.”
A council spokesman said: “There is no evidence thus far of any large-scale or co-ordinated sexual exploitation of the young people identified. It would not be appropriate to comment further until inquiries are fully concluded.”
By Matt Forde, Head of service at NSPCC Scotland
We know that many children who are being sexually exploited are invisible to agencies.
Sexual abuse is a secretive crime, usually only witnessed by the abuser and their victim. Often a child who is being sexually exploited won’t realise that this is wrong.
The report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was truly shocking and it underlines the need for us to understand the extent of child sexual exploitation in Scotland so we can act to protect the most vulnerable children.
A third of all children who are abused never speak to anyone about it, even when they are adults.
Things like a sudden change in behaviour, suddenly having money, new clothes or gifts or going out at odd times or with different people can be signs that a child may be being groomed.
Services need to reach out to young people to be able to see when they are being exploited.
And professionals need more training to identify, help and support young people who are being exploited.
Anyone who’s worried about a child or young person can contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or email email@example.com to report their concerns to a trained child protection counsellor.