Nearly 60 children in Bath and North East Somerset are being sexually exploited or are at risk of it happening, and social media “plays a big part”.
Avon and Somerset Police have also identified 69 young people who are being criminally exploited or are at risk, although there may be some overlap between the two numbers.
Many of the perpetrators are aged between 15 and 25 – little older than the people they are exploiting.
But police safeguarding manager Rob Fortune said targeted work is keeping numbers down.
He told Bath and North East Somerset Council scrutiny panel members on 10th March: “Social media plays a big part in this. It’s really important that parents and guardians take an interest in what children are doing online.
“In a recent survey, Facebook isn’t in the top 10 platforms they use – but it’s the one they tell their parents.
“150 perpetrators are targeted in our system in Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
In Bath and North East Somerset, the figure is lower than it has been.
“From speaking to the local police force, they believe that’s because of the intervention they have been putting in, going to schools and other target areas to get the message out to people about exploitation.”
Avon and Somerset Police are tackling child sexual exploitation through Operation Topaz.
Its “perpetrator disruption team” seeks out “hidden victims”, and works to ensure the best outcome for the children and to prosecute offenders.
More than half of the perpetrators are aged between 15 and 25.
Mr Fortune said in his report it is “not about ages but about power and balance in a relationship”.
“The current figures for children and young people that are at risk of or are being criminally exploited in Bath and North East Somerset is 69, and children and young people at risk of or are being sexually exploited is 57.
“There is some overlap with these figures as some children will appear in both groups.
“All of these children are allocated and receive case support.”
Councillor Vic Pritchard said: “There was a lot of denial in Rotherham. They were looked at as young prostitutes, not victims.
“If something like that happens, how ready are we?”
Mr Fortune replied: “We’re a lot more open. We work with partners more. We have safeguards in place.”
He also highlighted the local impact of county lines drug trafficking, which often exploit children and vulnerable adults to move drugs and money.
The number in Bath and North East Somerset is lower than in recent times, which the police again put down to targeted work.
Mr Fortune’s report said officers regularly check addresses where vulnerable people are at risk of being “cuckooed” – having their homes taken over by drug dealers.
That has led to arrests, drugs and money being seized, and vulnerable children being located.
“Positive action has had a considerable impact on the communities of Bath and has safeguarded countless persons being exploited,” the report said.
Warning signs that a child or young person could be in an exploitative relationship include:
- Going missing from home or care
- Repeat sexually transmitted infections, pregnancies or terminations
- Physical injuries
- Absenteeism from school
- Misuse of drugs or alcohol
- Deterioration in physical appearance
- Involvement in offending
- Evidence of online sexual bullying
- Evidence of vulnerability on social networking sites
- Emotional distance from family members
- Receiving gifts from unknown sources
- Recruiting others into exploitative situations
- Poor mental health
- Thinking about or attempting suicide
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter