Health chiefs and police in urgent talks over claims 150 men abused kids in care
Health and social care bosses are meeting with the PSNI to discuss the largest investigation into child sex abuse in Northern Ireland in decades.
It was reported yesterday that up to 150 men could be involved in grooming and abusing children in the care system here.
Police launched a probe after a review of cases involving vulnerable children who went missing from care facilities over the past 18 months.
Talks between representatives from the Safeguarding Board Northern Ireland (SBNI), the PSNI and the Health and Social Care Board, in Belfast city centre, come after Health Minister Edwin Poots revealed on Friday the police have been carrying out a major investigation involving at least 22 potential victims, believed to be aged between just 13 and 18.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister David Ford is due to attend a special joint meeting of the Assembly's justice and health committees in light of the emerging scandal.
It is understood the PSNI investigation relates to vulnerable children in care homes, and involves more than one criminal gang.
There are currently 52 children's residential homes in Northern Ireland – 41 statutory homes and 11 independent – housing around 260 children.
Charities such as the NSPCC and Barnardo's have long said that vulnerable children in Northern Ireland are being sexually exploited in the same way as the girls in the notorious Rochdale grooming case.
In 2012, nine men who ran a child sexual exploitation ring in the Lancashire town received jail sentences of between four and 19 years for plying youngsters as young as 13 with drink and drugs, so they could "pass them around" for sex.
Last night Lynda Wilson, director of Barnardo's Northern Ireland, told the Belfast Telegraph there has been "unprecedented collaboration" between the PSNI, PPS, Health and Social Services and the voluntary sector in recent weeks.
"For the people thinking 'the girls are asking for it' and 'it doesn't happen in my area' – it does," she said.
"We talk about it in terms of statistics, but my staff deal with the reality of the physical and emotional impact on young people who really don't want to live any more.
"They are moved from party to party and may not know where they are going and then find themselves in awful abusive situations."
Last night, in a statement to the Belfast Telegraph Health Minister Mr Poots said child sexual exploitation "knows no bounds".
"It affects girls and boys, children of all ages, children living in stable family homes as well as vulnerable children and it is my priority to ensure that any child in potential danger is protected," the DUP MLA said.