Every town and city in the UK is blighted by sexual exploitation and child victims go unidentified as tell-tale signs are missed due to a lack of awareness "from frontline children's services to the corridors of Whitehall", a leading charity said today.
Anne Marie Carrie, who takes over as Barnardo's chief executive today, said the children at the heart of the issue "have been forgotten as discussion has focused on the ethnicity of perpetrators in high-profile cases".
Her comments come as the UK's child protection agency launched an investigation into on-street grooming after former home secretary Jack Straw accused some Pakistani men in Britain of seeing white girls as "easy meat" for sexual abuse.
Ms Carrie called for a minister to be put in charge of the Government's response, saying that "without a minister with overall responsibility the Government response is likely to remain inadequate".
Urgent action is needed to protect thousands of young girls and boys who are being preyed upon and then abused, raped and exploited for sex, she said.
"Although I thoroughly welcome the recent attention around the issue, the children at the heart of this crime have been forgotten as discussion has focused on the ethnicity of perpetrators in high-profile cases," Ms Carrie said.
"Barnardo's knows that sexual exploitation is going on in every town and city in the UK and child victims continue to go unidentified as tell-tale signs are overlooked due to a lack of awareness that stretches from frontline children's services to the corridors of Whitehall."
She went on: "I have a lifetime of experience working in children's services, but there is nothing more shocking than child sexual exploitation.
"These vulnerable defenceless girls and boys, who crave love and attention, are groomed then abused in the most callous and calculated way, leaving them deeply traumatised and scarred for life."
Barnardo's worked with more than 1,000 sexually exploited girls and boys last year, but that number was "likely to be the tip of the iceberg", the charity said.
All but one of its 22 specialist services worked with children moved between towns and cities across the UK last year, the charity said.
Internet and mobile phone technology were also increasingly being used by abusers to target and exploit children, and younger children were increasingly at risk, it said.
"The average age of service-users has fallen from 15 to 13, with some of our services now working with children as young as 10," the charity said.
It called for all professionals to be made aware of the tell-tale signs of sexual exploitation in an effort to improve early identification of child sexual exploitation.
Evidence and data on the numbers of exploited children should also be improved, along with prosecution procedures to increase the number of cases leading to a conviction, particularly in supporting child victims to act as witnesses, it said.
Last week, Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) centre, said the sexual exploitation of children cannot be "simplified along ethnic lines where the victims constitute one ethnicity and offenders another".
The centre's "thematic assessment" of the issue will establish "whether it is accurate to identify any patterns of offending, victimisation or vulnerability within these cases", and will report in three to six months, a spokesman said.
Penny Nicholls, director of children and young people at The Children's Society, said: "Barnardo's findings echo our own experiences in projects run by The Children's Society that help vulnerable children who have been abused.
"Too many children and young people are being sexually exploited in the shadows of society, groomed in secret by heartless gangs of sexual predators or bogus boyfriends who shower vulnerable children with gifts and lure them to be horrifically exploited, sometimes for years on end.
"It can happen to any child and it is time we shone a powerful light on this hidden abuse suffered by children as young as 11 and 12 in cities and towns across the UK.
"We join with Barnardo's in calling on the Government to take urgent action, ensuring a minister has special responsibility for overseeing a countrywide response to combat sexual exploitation.
"We want the Government and all agencies who work with children to see this as a serious child protection issue."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime - it is a form of child sexual abuse and must not be tolerated.
"This is a complex problem and we are determined to tackle it effectively by working collaboratively right across Government and with national and local agencies."Reuse content