Revealed: The horrific trade in British children for sex

The terrible plight of foreign women trafficked into the UK and forced to work as prostitutes has overshadowed a home-grown scandal

Posing for her first school photograph, Joanne was like any other girl at the age of five. She loved drawing and painting, and her favourite game was to play hide-and-seek in the woods near her home in Leeds with her five siblings. As she grew, Joanne liked to hang around, chatting and laughing with friends. But soon after she turned 12, while out playing, she met a gang of men who were to become her pimps. They took advantage of her freedom, gained her trust and prepared to abuse her.

In the beginning, the men who befriended her had seemed nice enough: they showered her with compliments, bought her a phone, and one of them – a 42-year-old married man – became her "boyfriend". Within a year, she was forced into prostitution.

By the time she was 16, Joanne would disappear from the family home for weeks at a time. She was transported between Manchester, Rochdale, Bradford and countless other towns, locked into rooms and made to have sex repeatedly with men for money – not that she saw any of it.

Joanne is only one of many young women who have been subjected to such horrific ordeals across the UK. She is the victim of sex trafficking with a twist: not women brought in illegally from abroad and forced into prostitution, but British born. Targeted on estates throughout the country, they are passed from gang to gang, and work from town to town.

Yet the information on the trafficking of young people for sex within Britain is so scant that experts say the first official figures confirming the trade – seen by The Independent on Sunday – are just "the very, very tip of the iceberg". Figures from the UK Human Trafficking Centre for April 2009 to March 2010 show only 38 Britons were registered as victims. This comes after a snapshot survey by the children's charity Barnardo's revealed it worked with 609 sexually exploited children last year, of whom 90 appeared to have been trafficked within the UK.

The victims, unlike women coerced or tricked into coming into the UK from overseas, frequently have family and friends who are reduced to despair by what is happening. Joanne's mother, Christine, who was bringing up six children on her own, tried to protect her daughter, but the situation quickly spiralled out of her control.

"More than once I locked her in. She nearly broke her neck jumping out of upstairs windows," she recalls. Joanne fought her mother to get out of the house, giving her a black eye.

Before long, what had been flattery turned into violence. Joanne was called on the phone she had been given and was forced to leave the house at all hours to have sex with men. If she didn't do what was wanted. they threatened to hurt her and her family. "They brainwash these girls," her mother says. "A friend said to me 'it's like she'd been hypnotised'. That phone triggered something, and she'd got to respond."

Her mother says her pleas to police and social services fell on deaf ears. "I used to say: 'When are you going to do something?' They'd say they couldn't do anything unless she complains, but when do you decide that a child has to complain? They said they could do nothing. She was 13. I'd take down the number plates of cars as they drove away, but the police wouldn't accept them."

The IoS is withholding certain details of the identity of the mother and daughter to protect the family.

Campaigners say most victims are aged between 12 and 16, groomed by men to provide sex. Young men and women are typically targeted by one person, who wins their trust before pimping them to others and forcibly transporting them around Britain.

The case in court last month of a 14-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in Manchester after she was offered drugs and alcohol to groom her for sex is typical of the abuse experienced by these victims. Nine men were convicted of sexual crimes – though not for trafficking – and each was sentenced to jail terms ranging from eight months to seven years.

There has still not been one prosecution for trafficking Britons within the UK. And, despite mounting evidence of the scourge, a police report into trafficking to be released this week, called Project Acumen, chose not to assess the scale of trafficking of British nationals. Of the British women they did interview, they decided none exhibited "the dimensions of the trafficking definition".

Chief Superintendent Tony Blockley, head of crime at Derbyshire constabulary, tells a different story. He says: "We've always thought of this as a problem that comes from overseas, whereas this is actually happening on our doorsteps. The scale of it is enormous; Derby isn't a hotbed of this – it's just one town that's decided to look at this as a problem.

"This is a new area of policing for us. As soon as you lift the stone up, you start to find things, but people weren't lifting up the stone before. These are the kids that slip under the radar. Victims come from chaotic backgrounds; they are often in children's homes. As they get more involved in the network, the grooming lessens and the abuse increases."

After a year of being abused, Joanne started to lash out. "Virtually overnight she became someone we couldn't even recognise," says Christine. "Her attitude changed and she started to get really distant. After a while she got violent towards her siblings and me."

Social services said she could no longer live in the same place and put her into foster care. The downward spiral accelerated. At 16, Joanne had been missing for seven weeks. "I took social services to court as they said they didn't have a duty of care," says Christine. "The judge said they did, and the next day she was found, locked in a house with an Asian man, with the door handle taken off."

The gang that subjected her to this ordeal was Asian. The issue of alleged grooming of white teenage girls by Asian gangs is highly contentious. When the former Labour MP Ann Cryer said that Asian men were targeting white girls, she was accused of racism. With scant research available, there is no evidence that perpetrators or victims predominate from any one race.

Joanne, because she is now 18, is no longer of any interest to her former pimp, says her mother. The teenager is mentally scarred, homeless and drug addicted. "She's not a child any more, so they're not interested. They've used her up and thrown her out. One of them said to her: 'In five years' time you'll be a crackhead out on the street and I'll be cruising with another 14-year-old.' Five years down the line, she is on drugs, on the streets. He – like he told her – is cruising with another 14-year-old."

Sheila Taylor, chair of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, said: "What we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. This is happening in all cities and many towns. There has been no prosecution of those who sexually exploit children with trafficking legislation."

Like many parents of victims, Christine is frustrated that the issue has continued to be ignored. "They've known about this happening on my estate for a long time. It's not being dealt with because it's such a big issue. If you acknowledge that it goes on you have to do something and they probably think they wouldn't be able to cope with the sheer numbers."