DETECTIVES have arrested over 30 people as part of a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children in Northern Ireland.
It is understood a number of suspects have faced courts charged with sexual exploitation and other offences as part of the PSNI probe.
A special team of 15 detectives and social workers is working on the province-wide investigation.
The police have identified a group of 22 young people – aged between 13 and 18 – that may have been abused.
The investigation follows a review of cases of young people missing from the care system over the past 18 months.
The sexual exploitation of children and young people is to be discussed at Stormont on Monday during a joint meeting of the assembly’s health and justice committees.
Health Minister Edwin Poots and Justice Minister David Ford are expected to attend.
In a statement, Mr Poots said: “The Safeguarding Board Northern Ireland has identified child sexual exploitation as a priority and is developing and agreeing a multi-agency action plan to deal with the issue.
“Our first priority is to ensure that those who cynically exploit children in this way face the full force of the law and are brought to justice. That is why I have given my full support to the joint investigation between the PSNI and Social Services of CSE currently under way.
“All agencies must continue to demonstrate that robust and sufficient action is being taken to both prevent children and young people being sexually exploited and to deal effectively with those who perpetrate child sexual exploitation.”
The health minister has said the abuse was on a scale not seen before in Northern Ireland and compared it to recent high-profile court cases in Rochdale and Oxford.
The majority of the children were abused when they went missing from care homes.
However, it is understood some of the victims were living at home with their families and were abused when they left their homes.
Justice Committee chairman Paul Givan MLA has described the reports of abuse as “gravely disturbing”.
“The horrors of these crimes leave us only to pray for the victims and work towards ensuring the perpetrators are brought to justice,” he said.
“The public will be deeply concerned at this development and need to hear from the relevant authorities as to what has happened.”
Mr Givan said the meeting would provide “an opportunity to probe what actions are being taken to investigate and bring to justice those responsible”.
The NSPCC said the public needed to vigilant when it came to the safety of children both in care and at home.
Neil Anderson of the NSPCC: “As the details of this investigation begin to unfold, I want to stress our commitment to working closely with other safeguarding and child protection agencies to ensure a co-ordinated response to the support of victims.
“The early focus of this investigation in Northern Ireland has been on children in care, but it is important to remember that vulnerable children from all backgrounds and all walks of life can become victims of sexual exploitation.
“This is a sharp reminder that every one of us has to remain vigilant and when we have concerns about a child, we have to speak out.”