28/11/2013 06:43 GMT | Updated 27/01/2014 05:59 GMT

Child Exploitation and Gangs: Our Teenagers Need Support

The reports published this week by the Children's Commissioner would distress even the most hardened front-line worker. But unfortunately, what they have to say no longer surprises.

Report after report, news story after news story, make it clear that sexual abuse and exploitation of children is widespread and happens in every community; whether a leafy London suburb or on a poor northern housing estate.

The scale of sexual violence experienced by young women and girls, in particular those who have some association with gangs, is shocking. But what is particularly worrying is that many of the professionals tasked with keeping young people safe are repeatedly failing them.

Some of the failure can be attributed to the lack of understanding of the problem and how to tackle it. But this failure is also a result of negative attitudes of some professionals towards young people and troubled teenagers in particular.

Our research and work with young people confirms this. We know teenagers are less likely to receive a child protection response than younger children because professionals see them as more resilient and able to cope, even if this isn't the case.

And many professionals see older children who are sexually exploited as 'streetwise', 'choosing this life style' and 'troublesome' rather than vulnerable and in need of help.

But, no matter how uncomfortable reading these reports make, we cannot shy away from the problem. Safeguarding young people is everyone's job and we must find better ways to help both professionals and young people develop the knowledge and support they need to keep safe.

Prevention through responding to the first signs of trouble

The Children's Society has been supporting young people at risk of sexual exploitation for the last 30 years. We know that responding to early signs of trouble in child's life can stop things getting worse and can help disrupt grooming or sexual exploitation.

For example, our Scarpa project in Newcastle, supports young people who have run away from home or care and are vulnerable to exploitation. We empower young people and help them overcome the issues that made them run away in the first instance.

This has proved effective not just in reducing the number of running away episodes - a reduction of up to 70% - but also in identifying individuals seeking to exploit young people.

The project works closely with local safeguarding agencies, such as social services and the police, to disrupt exploitation and build local intelligence about perpetrators and local hot spots.

Helping young women to rebuild their lives

We also help young people deal with the massive impact of sexual violence and abuse on their lives.

Our Safe Choices project in London prepares and supports young women leaving Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and vulnerable young women leaving care to make the transition to independence.

These young women are at serious risk of abuse and exploitation. The project equips them with skills to make positive, safe choices, to develop self-confidence and positive identity, make them resilient and able to understand risks in the communities where they live.

Prevention through education for young people

The reports published today make it clear that to combat sexual violence and exploitation we need to talk to our children about sex and relationships.

All children need to learn about healthy relationships, sexual consent, how to seek help, and how to stay safe. To be effective such education has to be of good quality and available across all our schools.

We must act now to reduce the scale of abuse and exploitation and to make sure young people have support they need - by challenging attitudes, by helping young people overcome their experiences and by making policy changes to ensure that all young people are educated about healthy relationships and consent.