One in nine children have said they were targeted by would-be abusers who were trying to groom them.
The shocking statistic emerged as the PSNI and Barnardo’s launched a new initiative to tackle child exploitation.
As part of the innovative project, a Barnardo’s worker is to be based in a station alongside the PSNI’s public protection unit.
The scheme is being trialled in south and east Belfast, but could be extended right across Northern Ireland if successful.
Child sexual exploitation is the abuse of young people for sex below the age of consent by predatory adults.
According to experts, it is a hidden problem in Northern Ireland.
Last year, a survey of 700 children aged 16 and under revealed one in nine had been approached by someone attempting to groom them. Many of the victims were too scared to report the attempted grooming.
However, Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin from Barnardo’s believes the problem could be even more widespread.
“Any figures we have are |probably only the tip of the iceberg. They are a starting point and, even though they are |startling, they force us to take notice and consider how we should address this issue”, she said.
“Most of those who responded were actually under 16, so they were under the age of consent.
“What is worrying is the majority of the young people who reported an attempt to groom them did not tell another adult or someone in authority.”
Recent research by the charity shows that young girls in care are particularly vulnerable.
According to Ms Montgomery-Devlin, the project is aimed at reaching young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation at a much earlier stage.
“By having our worker based in the police station, we will be able to take action and support our colleagues in the PSNI as soon as there are reports of any concerns around a young person indicating sexual exploitation,” she added.
The project is being jointly financed by Barnardo’s and money seized from criminals under the assets recovery scheme.
Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the protection of children and vulnerable adults is a key police function.
“As over 50% of victims of sexual abuse in 2011 were under 18 years of age, it was critically important that we reviewed the service being provided to these young people to ensure their needs were being met,” he said.
“We believe that by developing a closer working relationship with Barnardo’s, that this will help to provide the best possible support to victims.”
The project will run until March 2014.
Latest police statistics state that 56% of victims of sexual violence were under 18 years of age. During 2010/11, 613 sexual offences against victims aged 12 to 17 were recorded. A Barnardo’s survey of 700 people aged 16 and under also found that one in nine reported previous experience of an adult attempting to groom them. In the majority of cases, the would-be victim was a |female.