Children in care homes are being subjected to sexual abuse of a “violent and sadistic nature”, England's Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz has warned.
She made the comments as the Government announced new reforms that aim to better protect youngsters who reside in the country's 455 children's homes.
The action comes following a report published by Ms Berelowitz, which was ordered after the jailing of a sex abuse ring in May which preyed on vulnerable girls in Rochdale.
Only one of the girls was in care at the time of the abuse but all were said to have been known to social services at some point in their childhood.
The ongoing inquiry has highlighted evidence that children in care are particularly vulnerable to child sex exploitation, with some residential homes being specifically targeted by abusers.
Ms Berelowitz said her research found perpetrators come from all ethnic groups, as do their victims, who are as young as 11 and are largely but not exclusively girls.
Speaking alongside Children's Minister Tim Loughton as he announced the new measures, she said she had been shocked by what she had found out.
She said of the abuse: “It is of a violent and sadistic nature.
“I've been in the children's services field for a very long time, and I have never come across the scale of violence and sadism that I'm encountering now. The stories that children and young people tell us are truly horrific.
“I think it's quite right and proper that the Government is paying special attention to this group of children as the state is their parent and therefore we have a special duty of care to children who are under care orders of one kind or another.”
Mr Loughton said three steps of immediate action were to be taken.
Although police figures show that an estimated 10,000 children go missing from care every year, the Government's official data recorded only 930 children disappearing.
Mr Loughton said a new system of measuring how many children go missing each year would be used, while more would be done to ensure that children's homes are properly protected and located as police and local authorities are not currently able to share information about where they are.
More will also be done to make sure children are sent to homes closer to where they are from. Mr Loughton said there were currently clusters of children's homes in certain areas, particularly coastal resorts like Margate in Kent, and in his own constituency in Worthing, West Sussex.
Mr Loughton said the Government wanted to tackle the “out of sight, out of mind culture” that allows abuse to go on.
He said: “We are talking about a very vulnerable group of children. Children who come into care should expect a degree of safety in the care of the state.
“Children who come from very traumatic backgrounds, they may have been abused or neglected for a long time, need to know they are safe in the form of care the state is providing for them.
“These reports lift the lid on very serious weaknesses in the system.
“There are good children's homes and excellent care workers but it is clear that far too many of the most vulnerable children in society are being exposed to harm and danger.
“It is completely unacceptable that existing rules are simply being ignored and that frankly, some local authorities and homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper parent.
Children's charity Barnardo's said 31% of the 3,500 young people it looked after through its sexual exploitation services in the last six years were in care.
Chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said: “We know that children from all walks of life are at risk of child sexual exploitation, but those who are already vulnerable, such as children in care, are especially so.
“We need to be sure that by clustering vulnerable children together in certain areas of England we are not putting already desperate children in even greater danger of being preyed upon.
“It is worrying that we don't know the true level of this threat and better data collection will be key. However, action is also needed to protect those children in care now.”
Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said she welcomed action to clamp down on the high numbers of children being homed out of their boroughs.
She said nearly half (46%) are placed in homes miles away from their home towns.
She said: “Failure to take action will lead to more and more horrific Rochdale cases. We would never forgive ourselves if by inaction we allowed more children to be lured into the living nightmare of sexual exploitation.”
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children's Society, said: “It is a scandal that children who go missing from care are being systematically failed and placed in great danger by a system that is allegedly there to protect them.
“The recent exposure of horrific cases of sexual exploitation, trafficking and other shocking crimes leave no room for doubt that there are huge gaps in the system that must be closed urgently.
“ There must be a dramatic change in attitudes and culture towards these very vulnerable children.”