An investigation is to be launched today to pin down the full extent of sexual exploitation, predatory grooming and abuse of children by gangs.
Thousands of children are feared to be caught up in the abuse with figures suggesting 10,000 may be affected in England, but some research points to the problem being far worse.
The study will be led by Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children's Commissioner, who has warned that existing data is so inadequate that no one has a clear idea how widespread sexual abuse, including rape, by street gangs is. She said children are being failed in every part of society.
It follows several high profile cases this year which have highlighted some of the abuse that has taken place. They include groups of men grooming teenagers for sex in Derby, Torbay and Rochdale.
In August Barnardo's said parents and professionals were missing telltale signs of youngsters being groomed for sex, and earlier in the summer research was published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre showing that safety nets put in place to safeguard children were inadequate.
Rebecca Einhorn, from the NSPCC's Street Matters project, welcomed the new study and said: "Many girls' lives are seriously damaged by gangs who run this type of grooming. It is a corrosive problem that needs serious research and action to help those affected."
Barnardo's chief executive, Anne Marie Carrie, said: "Sexually exploited children are right under our noses, yet many are still slipping through the net. We still have a long way to go to save them from the clutches of these vile abusers. We need to act now to stop more children being failed."
Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, described the inquiry as "a wake-up call for us all". It is being carried out for the Office of the Children's Commissioner which is using powers granted to it by the 2004 Children Act.
Initial findings are to be published in June next year with a final report expected to be released in September 2013. Investigators will gather evidence from a variety of sources, including police, local authorities and youth workers.