The Oxford grooming trial has been a grim reminder that even though we are living in the 21st Century there are still some people who have medieval attitudes towards young girls. The barbaric treatment of the victims in this case was depraved and must never be allowed to happen again.
Children being raped, tortured, beaten, prostituted, forced to have crude abortions, burned branded and sold sounds like the script for an unbelievable horror film. But tragically it sums up the daily lives of these vulnerable girls, barely out of primary school, who were looking for love but instead found themselves enmeshed in a dark and horrifying world with little hope of escape.
Once the gang had lured them into an 'exciting' world with a constant supply of mobile phones, drink and drugs, they closed the trapdoor. And then all the smiles and promises of devotion and attention turned to threats and terror. If they didn't succumb to constant and horrific sexual assaults from the gang, or other men who paid to abuse them, they would be beaten mercilessly. There were also threats to burn down their homes and kill their families if they didn't do as they were ordered.
As if this wasn't enough to frighten them into submission extra control was exerted by keeping the girls in a drug-fuelled stupor. One was so disorientated she even forgot her birthday.
For anyone who lives in a 'normal' world it's difficult to comprehend a situation where girls who have suffered such brutal treatment would continue to hang on to men who behave like a pack of animals.
But we have to understand that most victims of grooming and sexual exploitation already have fractured lives. Some of them come from families where there is domestic violence, excessive drinking, drug-taking and a distinct lack of love. Many will be in care, struggling to find a consistent adult presence to give them support or guide them through the pitfalls of life.
One of the girls in this case was abandoned in a wood after being horrendously abused and threatened with death only to phone the gang and ask them to pick her up because she couldn't find her way home.
It's hard to imagine the hopelessness and helplessness she must have felt. How desperate must you be to call someone who has just threatened to slit your throat and ask for help?
So, what can be done to prevent this horrific kind of grooming and abuse happening again?
Recently the NSPCC revealed that thousands of children in care repeatedly go missing, putting them at risk of being sexually exploited. So we have to pay more attention to these young people, find out why they keep vanishing and take action to stop it.
Because of their troubled backgrounds these girls will often come across as challenging and troublesome. But they are victims. This is not a lifestyle choice they have made. How can we accept that eleven and twelve-year-olds really want to be branded, bartered, beaten and raped? So, when they go missing, we need carers and police to work together to find them and get them to safe care.
We need better vigilance from police so they can crack down on the men who hang around children's homes and parks in their luxury cars, promising a good life but delivering what one victim described as 'a living hell with no escape'. And when a girl complains about being sexually abused the allegations must be taken seriously and acted on immediately. We also need more information and education for children and young people and their parents about the warning signs and consequences of grooming and we need to see clear messages of deterrence to actual and potential abusers.
Finally, we should praise the extraordinary courage of the girls in this case who had to re-visit the horrors of their abuse in the public gaze of the most famous courtroom in the world to ensure this group of indescribable sex offenders was finally brought to justice. They will probably need counselling for some time to come if they are to fully recover. But let us hope their bravery encourages other victims of sexual abuse to come forward.