Police have also discovered in one city that punters have been picking up boys for sex directly from children's homes, despite social workers concerns that 14- and 15-year-olds were selling their bodies.
In the most detailed research of its kind, two pilot schemes in Nottingham and Wolverhampton have spent the past year contacting about 125 child prostitutes aged from 11 to 18.
A leading expert in prostitution said yesterday that the study showed that there may be two or three times more child sex workers in Britain than previously thought.
He added that the problem had been "massively" underestimated and attacked the authorities for ignoring the proven links between children's homes and prostitution.
The Children's Society is teaming up with other charities in the next few months to carry out a nationwide survey to discover how many young people are involved in paid sex. Barnardo's, the children's charity, will launch a campaign to highlight the plight.
Early results from two pilot projects run by police vice squads in co-operation with social services in Wolverhampton and Nottingham, in which child prostitutes are being treated as victims of crime, have uncovered disturbingly high numbers of male and female teenagers selling sex.
In Nottingham, the police found about 50 girls, mostly aged 14 and 15, involved in prostitution, almost all working on the street charging from pounds 20 to pounds 30 for full sex.
They also discovered about 20 rent boys offering sex for "a bag of chips, pounds 5, pounds 10, or a room for the night", according to Sergeant Pete Parchment of the vice squad. More than half were in residential care and they tended to operate from cafes and clubs and via contacts.
Sgt Parchment said they also found that four men - believed to be punters or pimps - were picking up boys directly from three children's homes run by the local authority in Nottingham.
"We were getting calls from social workers saying they had suspicions that the men were taking them away to have sex, but they were doing zilch about it," he said.
He said the boys were aged about 13 and 14. "They were in care for abuse and the men were driving up to the homes to pick them up. The care workers felt that if a child was leaving with an older man they did not have the power to do anything," he added.
The police have since written to the four men warning them to stay away from the homes. The men have not been back, but none has been prosecuted.
"This project has opened eyes about the scale of the problem," Sgt Parchment said.
Sue Gregory, service manager of children protection at Nottingham city social services, said: "We have been educating our staff that dangerous adults will target vulnerable children. We have made it clear that the children should only have contact with trusted adults."
In Wolverhampton, the police contacted 55 female prostitutes aged from 11 to 18. Fifteen gave witness statements to say that they had been forced into prostitution and 23 told the police the same thing, but would not make a formal complaint. Inquiries have led to 18 adults being charged with crimes such as rape, unlawful imprisonment, kidnap, assault and living off immoral earnings.
In 1996, police in Wolverhampton were dealing with only about 20 girls a year, who were all street workers. The project revealed that far more were operating from rented flats and via networks of abusers.
It is now believed that this pattern of child prostitution and the underestimation of the scale of the problem is repeated in all Britain's major cities.
Professor Roger Matthews, of Middlesex University social science department and the author of several studies on prostitution, said: "The number of young people who have some kind of involvement in prostitution is massively underestimated. The problem is that a lot of it is not particularly visible - much of it goes on behind closed doors or via networks of contacts.
"This latest research suggests that the actual number is probably two or three times greater than we suspect or is officially recorded.'
Darren, of Newport:
WHEN DARREN was 12, his father started beating him and his mother. He stopped going to school and met a man who allowed him to stay at his house during the day; before long he was coerced into performing sex. Too frightened to tell his parents, Darren ran away and was eventually placed in a foster home, but spent most of his day in the town centre where men would offer to pay him for sex. At 14, the Children's Society helped find him a more suitable children's home.
Christine, of London:
CHRISTINE RAN away from home at the age of 14 after fights with her parents. She was befriended by a man in his early twenties, but after about a month he complained that she was not earning any money and became aggressive. He introduced `friends' to her and she was pushed into having sex with them for money. She ran away but was caught and beaten. After about a year, Christine went to a charity and she was placed in care.
Michelle, of Manchester:
MICHELLE WAS sexually abused by a relative but was not believed. At 12, she was placed in local authority care. She was bullied, ran away, started to use drugs and began to sell her body on the streets. At 15, she was arrested for soliciting and given a conditional discharge. Charity workers helped her get a place in a women's hostel.
Gillian, of Newport:
FROM THE age of four Gillian was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. She was moved to a foster family at the age of 10. By 12 she was in a children's home. In her teens, she agreed to provide a man in his fifties with sex in exchange for accommodation. She has since moved out and now lives alone.Reuse content