There is hope for young caught in a web of abuse
Child sexual exploitation is a very real issue across Northern Ireland. But don't despair, says Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin
Child sexual exploitation is not an easy subject to read about, or hear about. It is all-too-tempting to imagine that it doesn't happen here; that children in Northern Ireland are not subject to the same kind of child-abuse which we hear about happening in the rest of the UK, like the recent cases in Rochdale and Derby.
But, of course, we're not immune and it does happen here; in every city, town and community, across religion and class.
Barnardo's NI, through our Safe Choices service, has been working with children who have been exploited by predatory adults for sex for several years now.
Last year, we had more than 100 children and young people referred to us from across Northern Ireland and we believe it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Child sexual exploitation is the abuse of young people below the age of consent for sex by predatory adults.
And they know just whom to target: young people who are vulnerable, young people in care homes, young people who are troubled.
They groom them by befriending them, telling them they understand them, that they'll protect them, that they'll show them a good time, by giving them presents like mobile phones, taking them out in flashy cars and telling them they love them.
And, because the young people are vulnerable and scared, they fall for it and, before they know it, they are caught in a vicious cycle of abuse which can be incredibly difficult to break free from.
Last year, we published the findings of a two-year research project which we carried out, entitled Not A World Away, into the scope and nature of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.
The report was funded by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. And the findings are shocking.
In a survey of more than 700 16-year-olds, one-in-seven indicated that they had been subjected to some form of grooming and, of those, three-quarters were person-to-person, rather than online.
A survey of social workers found that they had concerns about the sexual exploitation of around one-in-nine young people they were working with.
Another survey revealed that possibly up to two-thirds of girls in care are at risk of sexual exploitation.
The result of being sexually exploited can be long-term physical and emotional damage.
For young girls who are repeatedly raped, sometimes by multiple men, it can mean not being able to have children in the future and a whole series of complications.
Barnardo's NI wants to stop the sexual exploitation of children and we are working hard to achieve that. But we cannot do it alone.
This week we launched a joint initiative with the PSNI to have a Barnardo's worker based in Willowfield Police Station in east Belfast to provide early intervention for young people who are suspected of being involved in, or at risk from, sexual exploitation.
The pilot project will run for 18 months, but our aim is to expand it.
One of the good things about the scheme is that it is jointly-funded by Barnardo's NI and money seized from criminals through the assets recovery system.
There is hope for these young people.
As one young girl we worked with said: "If things have happened to you in your life, don't run away from it.
"Face it and go to the police, because, at the end of the day, those men are the ones that should have to hold their heads down in shame, not us."