One in four looked-after children in Scotland has been sexually exploited, a study published late last year found. And according to the authors, from the Centre for Excellence for Looked-After Children in Scotland, this figure is likely to be "considerably higher" for those in older age groups, for girls and for children in residential care.
But the simple fact is that it is not just children in care who are at risk. The majority of referrals to Safer Choices, a Glasgow-based service run by children's charity Barnardo's to support children at risk of sexual exploitation, were those living at home, the centre's manager Daljeet Dagon said.
Although many of these young people come from chaotic backgrounds, voluntary organisations specialising in this type of abuse are increasingly reporting that young people without particular vulnerabilities are being drawn into sexual exploitation. Online grooming and pressure from peers appear to be to blame.
Safer Choices uses the example of Roisin, a 15-year-old who lost her virginity to a 24-year-old after being introduced to him by a school friend with a history of meeting men online. The friend, Amanda, arranged the date for Roisin through Facebook. Roisin, who said she was pressurised into having sex, remained disturbed by the encounter. She maintained that if it hadn't been for her friendship with Amanda, she would still be a virgin and would not be drinking as heavily.
For others, the consequences of online encounters can be even more serious. Daniel Perry, a 17-year-old apprentice mechanic from Dunfermline, killed himself last year after being lured into explicit webcam chats via Skype with someone he believed was an American girl his own age. It appears that in fact a gang of blackmailers was behind the chats and threatened to share the images with his family.
The point is that teenagers baulk at the idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger in the street, but think nothing of chatting to people they do not know online, according to a child protection and inclusion officer from South Lanarkshire Council. Les Obre, a former depute, said that the risks they were taking had to be pointed out to them.
"They think they know what they are doing but when you explore it, suddenly something clicks and they realise they don't know who they are talking to," he said.
The issue was now "a big deal" for South Lanarkshire Council, said Mr Obre, who has been trained to deliver courses aimed at students, parents and professionals through the police's nationwide Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop). Since August last year, he has delivered training to 680 school staff, 1,600 students, 260 parents and carers, 23 student teachers, 20 residential workers and 14 police officers.
The challenge is huge, as most school staff are unaware of what they are dealing with. In an audience of 180 primary and secondary teachers, perhaps five or six had "a vague clue" about the dangers lurking online but the rest were "not even at the starting line", Mr Obre said.
"It's because they are not aware of the technology and what it can or can't do and the dangers associated with it - it's the same with parents and carers," he said. "Some parents use technology as a surrogate babysitter and assume that because their children are in the house they are safe, but nothing could be further from the truth."
Children as young as 8 were chatting online, Barnardo's Ms Dagon said. "You have to be 13 to have a Facebook account, but a lot of children start out using phones to play games online and through those games you can chat to people. People don't understand how dangerous that can be."
Last month, MSPs investigating child sexual exploitation called for a national education programme on the subject (see panel, below right). They also said that every school should have an internet safety programme. Their report states that preventative education is currently "patchy across the country and often appeared inadequate", but adds that such education could be key, particularly when it comes to protecting young people who are vulnerable only because of their age.
"Along with young people's support projects and training for parents, preventive education may be the key protection for young people from safer and more supportive backgrounds, some of whom are now getting pulled into CSE (child sexual exploitation) through online grooming or the pressures of peers," the report says.
A question of blame
Ms Dagon agreed that the education side was "massive". Every year, Safer Choices works with five Glasgow schools to deliver a series of four lessons to S2 students, focusing on the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. In an ideal world, Ms Dagon said, the service would be delivering a programme in every school from P1 to S6.
At the start of the programme, most students believed that the children themselves were responsible for being sexually exploited, she said. "We find that both boys and girls tend to have the view that the young person involved in CSE is to blame, but once we have gone through the four lessons they are more aware of the power dynamics and grooming."
Professionals, including teachers, had similar preconceptions, Ms Dagon added. "Lots of adults make comments like, 'They are making a choice.' That's particularly said of 16- and 17-year-olds."
Who Cares? Scotland, a charity that specialises in working with children in care, told the Scottish Parliament: "One of the most significantly unhelpful elements of practice is that many workers, from different sectors, are not able to identify CSE, often taking the view that young people are engaged in consensual activity, or that they have made a conscious choice to engage in harmful or risky behaviours. Responses to young people are often judgemental, which can further alienate them and make their friends seem more appealing."
But these young people had been groomed and often came from backgrounds where they were shown little or no affection, Ms Dagon said. When they got attention they found it hard to accept that the person was also harming them.
"Even when the young person gets to the point where they see they are being harmed, sometimes being harmed is better than not having anybody at all," she added. "People struggle to understand why the young person keeps going back but it's very similar to the domestic abuse relationship.
"The message we give to teachers is that young people who are being exploited don't consent; it's not a choice. Professionals use that terminology all the time so we look at how they become involved and why they stay involved."
The role of the teacher was to be a safe person a child could come to, to believe the child and to take action, Ms Dagon said. "That could just be referring them on to social work or police, but it's important to remember that if a young person tells you something it's not just because they want to get it off their chest, it's because they want it to stop."
Before undertaking his Ceop training, Mr Obre admitted that he shared some of the common misconceptions. "I could never understand why, if a 13-year-old girl got communicating with a 13- or 14-year-old boy and then turned up to find an old duffer like me, they didn't just turn on their heel and go," he said. "But it's more complicated than that.
"These people play on these teenagers' emotions, say the right things and even blackmail or bribe them. They plan these things meticulously: where they can make contact with youngsters, how they get into a relationship and then how they develop that relationship into a sexualised phase."
As well as working in schools, Safer Choices also takes to the streets. Workers go out into Glasgow city centre and the red-light district at night, and try to make contact with young people at risk.
"They could be missing or they are just coming into town and get caught up in risk-taking behaviours," Ms Dagon said. "We communicate with them to find out who they are, what they are doing in town and what we can do to support them."
Project workers are currently concentrating their efforts on clubs for the under-18s because they know that rather than going home when the clubs close, many young people are congregating in flats instead.
In the past year, Safer Choices has supported about 300 young people, usually aged between 12 and 16. Most of them are being exploited at the same time as they are being helped by the project. The goal is to try to prevent further harm.
"The bottom line is that a teacher is often the person a child will go to. It is important that teachers are understanding of the issues and they know where the child can access support," Ms Dagon said.
For more information, see www.ceop.police.uk and www.tesconnect.comceop. The Centre for Excellence for Looked-After Children in Scotland's report is at bit.lyCelcisCSE
The Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee published its report on tackling child sexual exploitation on 14 January, complete with 28 recommendations. The Scottish government has until the middle of next month to respond. To see the report, go to bit.lyParliamentCSE
SPOTTING THE SIGNS
What is child sexual exploitation?
Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse, in which a young person is manipulated or forced into taking part in a sexual act. This could be as part of a seemingly consensual relationship, or in return for attention, affection, money, drugs, alcohol or a place to stay. The young person may think the abuser is their friend, or even their boyfriend or girlfriend.
What are the signs?
Going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late.
Regularly missing school or not taking part in education.
Appearing with unexplained gifts or new possessions.
Associating with other young people involved in exploitation.
Having older boyfriends or girlfriends.
Suffering from sexually transmitted infections.
Mood swings or changes in emotional well-being.
Drug and alcohol misuse.
Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.