Young girls at risk of sexual exploitation are falling through the gaps because youth offending teams do not have the support they need from police and social care to take action, an inspection has found.
Girls who offend are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, according to a joint inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, and Care and Social Service Inspectorate Wales.
In two areas, inspectors found youth offending teams (YOT) had suspicions that girls were at risk of sexual exploitation but no action was taken.
It was of concern that in two areas, YOT case managers recognised the indicators and had suspicions that girls were at risk, but without appropriate support from police and social care they could not take action.
The concerns were raised in the wake of a number of high-profile child abuse scandals in towns and cities including Rochdale, Oxford, Rotherham and Bristol.
Chief inspector of probation, Paul McDowell, said: "What we were extremely concerned about was that many of the girls we came across during this inspection were themselves vulnerable to sexual exploitation and many had experienced situations and circumstances in their lives which they were struggling to understand and come to terms with.
"These individuals are children and are entitled to the rights and protection a child should receive.
"In too many cases, this protection was absent with staff in agencies often ill-prepared to deal with, or unaware of the problem of actual or potential sexual exploitation."
YOT case managers were unable to act on suspicions that girls were at risk of sexual exploitation because of an apparent need for a disclosure of abuse from the victim, the report said.
In 2012/13, 9,486 girls were supervised by YOTs compared to 39,722 boys.
Some girls are more vulnerable to exploitation because of their offending, which put them into situations where they were more likely to be sexually exploited, the inspection said, while others were being sexually exploited, which often acted as a trigger for offending behaviour.
In all six YOTs inspected, child sexual exploitation was a major risk to the girls in the area.
The work of professionals was often not well coordinated, inspectors found, and focused too much on the girls' offending rather than reasons for their behaviour.
Only 50% of the assessments by YOT case managers considered risk of sexual exploitation, the inspection discovered.
Chief executive of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), Lin Hinnigan, said: "Recognising and understanding the distinct needs of girls in the criminal justice system is key to enabling local agencies to act on the findings in this report.
"In the last two years, the YJB has developed a new framework and toolkit that can be used by youth offending teams (YOTS) to help inform their work with girls.
Some YOTS have taken this further and developed programmes specifically for young girls in their area.
"These programmes have a particular focus on building self esteem which can help reduce girls' vulnerability to exploitation, as well as substance misuse, sexual and emotional health, family and peer relationships.
"The YJB has also been working in partnership with the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) and the Home Office, to raise awareness among youth justice practitioners and help them to identify vulnerable girls who have been sexually or physically abused.
"We have created specific training for practitioners to improve the work they do with girls who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, gang associated violence and domestic violence."
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