AN independent inquiry is to be held into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.
A total of 22 suspected child care home victims, aged between 13 and 18, have been identified and over 30 people arrested as part of a police investigation into potential organised crime.
However, the allegations relate to periods when they were not in the facilities, such as on nights-out when they failed to return.
Last week, a senior PSNI officer told MLAs that some of the girls were trafficked from one party to another in a taxi.
Detectives have not found a ‘sex ring’ but say they are looking to see if one exists.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Health Minister Edwin Poots said: “Judging from the public reaction to this issue I know that many … share with me a sense of disbelief and horror that this is happening in our society.
“People are also asking, and rightly so, valid questions about whether everything that can be done is being done, to prevent, tackle and disrupt the sexual exploitation of children and young people.”
Sinn Féin Stormont Assembly member Maeve McLaughlin said: “We have always said that the focus needs to be on protecting and safeguarding the most vulnerable within our society.
“However, this inquiry must not only learn the lessons from the recent revelations but accountability must also be a factor for any failings that have occurred.”
The PSNI and health authorities have been criticised for failing to act earlier on a report by the charity Barnardos which flagged up child exploitation as a major problem for Northern Ireland in 2011.
Mr Poots and Stormont justice minister David Ford have proposed a further independent expert-led inquiry with support from criminal justice, health and education regulators.
Mr Poots said: “It is clear to me from listening to those who work in this area that the understanding about this issue, how it can happen and how it can be stopped, is developing all the time.
“Throughout the UK, all governments, academics, professionals, the public, service providers and frontline staff are working to better understand and respond to this devastating form of sexual abuse which violates, humiliates and, in many instances, traps children into a cycle of harm.”
The proposed remit includes examining the nature and extent of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.
It will consider the effectiveness of measures to secure the safety and wellbeing of children in care, including those at risk of exploitation.