Dozens of vulnerable girls were bought and sold for sex by paedophiles running a modern-day slavery ring, police revealed yesterday.
Many of the 24 victims – some as young as 11 – were groomed, drugged and routinely raped over six years.
Council chiefs last night faced calls to set up an inquiry after it emerged that all the girls involved were known to social services or had been in their care.
The shocking scale of abuse in the affluent university city of Oxford was revealed after police arrested 13 men on suspicion of a variety of offences, including causing the prostitution of females under the age of 18, trafficking and rape.
Police are investigating the theory that the paedophile gang used social networking sites to swap information about victims, who in some cases were ‘conveyed’ to other parts of the country for sex.
All the victims were aged between 11 and 16, and were described as being ‘very, very vulnerable’ by a senior detective. It is feared many more under-age girls were targeted by the gang.
All the victims were approached individually before being groomed for sex and sold on for profit. The amounts of money involved are unclear but investigators believe thousands of pounds could have exchanged hands.
Thames Valley Police refused to reveal the ethnicity of the suspected gang members, saying such information could result in victims being identified.
Nor would they reveal whether the victims had been in foster care or care homes when they were
Among those detained was a married father of two, aged 29, from the Cowley area of Oxford. A relative, who would not give his name, said: ‘The police came early this morning and arrested him. They would not say what he was arrested for. They said they were looking for evidence.’
Esther Davidson, from Oxford Community Against Trafficking, said: ‘We now have to face the fact modern slavery takes place in our community, and it involves children.
‘Yes, criminals are at work, but they are also exploiting demand. Demand for sex with under-age children is completely unacceptable.’
Sharon Highton, who runs the Include project at East Oxford Community Centre for youngsters who have been excluded from schools, said: ‘There is a huge problem with sex grooming in the area and social services are not taking any action. They seem to wait until something major happens before they intervene.’
Alleged members of the child sex ring were detained in a series of police raids early yesterday. More than 140 officers burst into the homes of gang suspects and their ‘customers’ in synchronised raids across Oxford at 6am and arrested 12 men. A thirteenth suspect was arrested.
The investigation involves a criminal gang who are selling young girls for sex,’ said Detective Superintendent Rob Mason. ‘These include people involved in the business of selling young girls, and their customers.’
Most of the victims, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, are from the Oxfordshire area. ‘It would be fair to say that at different times in their lives they have all come to the notice of children’s services,’ said Detective Superintendent Mason.
Police said they were being trafficked within the UK.
What we believe we have uncovered is a criminal gang getting financial profit from selling young girls and they are conveying them from Oxford to customers,’ he added.
‘We consider the girls to be very, very vulnerable and that’s why they have been targeted. The girls have gone missing and when they returned they have made certain disclosures.
‘Through children’s services and Oxfordshire County Council we have become aware of some of the activities the girls have been getting into when they’ve gone missing.’
The trafficking came to light when police began an investigation – codenamed Operation Bullfinch – looking at reports of girls going missing from their homes. The 13 suspects, aged between 21 and 37, were being interviewed at various police stations.
More than 40 uniformed officers and community support officers were yesterday handing out A5 flyers about the operation to reassure the public.
Detectives also posted a video on YouTube to reassure community members and urge any potential victims to come forward.
Stuart Craft, an Oxford councillor, said he had grave concerns about children’s services in the area. He added: ‘I would not be surprised if these exploited girls did not have any confidence in their social workers and that is why this has been allowed to go on for so long.’
Local councillor Mary Clarkson said: ‘Children in care have had a bad start to life and they need to be protected. I would be very upset if it came to light that this was a failing on the part of social services and will be calling for an investigation if these girls were not given the right protection.’
Councillor Louise Chapman, cabinet member for children, young people and families at Oxfordshire Council, said: ‘The council has assisted in what has been a complex investigation leading to today’s events. Its focus has been, and will continue to be, on the care for alleged victims.’
Last night, four of those arrested, aged in their 20s and 30s, were released on police bail while detectives continue there
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