Almost 900 potential victims of child sexual exploitation have been identified in Sheffield since 2001.
The Sheffield Sexual Exploitation Service is estimated to have dealt with 880 cases between 2001 and 2014 – with a ‘fair proportion’ of those referred believed to have been abused.
Figures have shown 668 children were referred between 2001 and 2013, with a further 213 referrals made in 2013/14.
A Sheffield Council report said that of the 2013/14 referrals, 52 of the young people assessed were declared to be at ‘medium or high risk’ of being abused.
Ann Lucas, who ran the service between 1997 and 2012, said that in all probability there would have been extra cases happening in the city that weren’t included in the records, due to young people at risk not being referred to the service.
She said: “Because CSE is so hidden, I’m sure we didn’t know about everybody.”
Ms Lucas said Sheffield’s child sexual exploitation issues were different to those in neighbouring Rotherham – but added senior police officers failed to act due to the crime being viewed as low priority.
“The difference in Rotherham was it seems it was actively suppressed and covered-up,” she said.
“It wasn’t covered up in Sheffield as such – it just wasn’t a priority.”
Ms Lucas also warned that hundreds of offenders who paid to sexually abuse underage children in Sheffield are unlikely to ever be caught due to the lack of information about who they are.
She said there have been hundreds of child victims of abuse in the city – with police failing to act during the early and mid-2000s because of a greater interest in ‘priority’ offences such as car crime and burglary.
She said many of those in criminal gangs who organised sexual exploitation for profit have not faced justice, while those who paid for sex with underage girls in the city are unlikely to ever be caught.
“Some of the organisers are in prison – not for what they did to the young people but for other things like violent crime, drug offences and even murder,” she said. “A really important part of it is those who paid to have sex with these girls not being caught.
“Who are these people that are paying for sex with these children? We don’t have any perception of them.
“There must be hundreds out there.
“Because it is so shadowy, it is difficult to just identify the offenders who are passing these girls around – nobody knows who the people the girls were passed on to are.”
Ms Lucas said that at the beginning of the service’s work, it was mainly organised criminals from the Afro-Caribbean community who were involved with sexual exploitation, but added other groups - including men from the Asian community, were identified as running grooming gangs in the city as time went on.
She said the Asian grooming gangs did not tend to pimp underage girls on the street but instead arranged for them to be ‘passed on to different people’ for sex at different locations around the city and further afield.
Kurdish males were also found to be sexually exploiting young people. This resulted in a successful police operation in 2007, and two men were convicted of serious sexual offences, whilst six others were charged with immigration offences.
Groups of white males have also been identified as being engaged in the sexual exploitation of young people.
She said the picture of sexual exploitation in Sheffield covers all ethnic groups, including white British people.
Ms Lucas said that in 2003 she had made a presentation to senior police officers ‘naming names’ and asking for a police operation to be launched.
She said the information included details about at least 15 girls who were victims and ‘over 10 men’ suspected of organising the sexual exploitation of the children.
But she said the information never appears to have been acted upon.
“It was just really frustrating. It was awful because you knew what was going on and you wanted to do something about it,” she said.
Ms Lucas said she believes grooming crimes are still taking place in the city.
She said while she no longer has a direct role in dealing with child sexual exploitation issues in the city, she is sure abuse is still carrying on.
“I don’t see how it would have been stopped,” she said.
Ms Lucas ran the service between 1997 and 2012.
She had been a social worker in the 1990s but in 1996 became a Child Protection Co-ordinator, and as part of this role was then asked to look at the issue of what was then called ‘child prostitution’.
This led to the creation of the city’s pioneering sexual exploitation service, which aimed to help teenagers trapped in street prostitution.
It was set up partly in response to the murder of Fiona Ivison, a 17-year-old girl who was murdered in 1993 after being groomed and forced into prostitution.
Ms Lucas said the extent of the city’s problem with child sexual exploitation had come as a surprise to her as the project was established.
She said: “What we did find at the beginning was young people forced into street prostitution. They had such dark lives and the outcomes for them were really dreadful.
“They were involved with heavy-end criminals . The young people quite often had a heroin or crack habit which trapped them in these lives, because they couldn’t get out of their habits.”
She said many of the girls first referred were aged between 16 and 17, but some were as young as 13.
Ms Lucas said after the service started, police in Sheffield were asked to treat everyone found on the street aged under 18 as a victim and take them to a place of safety.
She said many of the children who had been groomed and then sexually exploited came from ordinary backgrounds.
Most children referred to the service were classified as ‘at risk’ unless they made a direct disclosure that they were a victim of abuse.
Ms Lucas said police officers directly involved with the project had been ‘fantastic’ but it had been a struggle to get senior officers to divert resources and support its work.
“The police officers we worked with on the ground were fantastic. But it wasn’t a priority for senior officers at all and the resources never went into it. When I retired in 2012, we only had one part-time police officer fully dedicated to working with the service. In addition we had two other officers on a temporary basis. I believe there are now more than 70 police officers working on CSE now so it has been prioritised recently”.
A Sheffield Council spokesman said: “The crime of child sexual exploitation is a challenge nationally and locally but our internal review, carried out following the Jay report last year, has shown that we recognise the issue and have given a great deal of importance to tackling it and have in fact been pioneering in our approach.
“We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to tackle child sexual exploitation and will never be complacent.” A South Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “South Yorkshire Police has admitted to past failings in the way it handled child sexual exploitation and there continues to be a high level of scrutiny.
“Tackling child sexual exploitation and bringing offenders to justice is a priority for South Yorkshire Police.
“We are now operating with a deeper understanding of child sexual exploitation. We are acutely aware of the grooming process and the impact it has on a child. It leads the victim to view the behaviour as normal and not recognise themselves as victims.
“We are determined to bring those responsible for these horrendous crimes to justice and will use every tool at our disposal to enable us to do so.”