A CHILDREN’S charity is to target taxi drivers and small hotels in a new campaign to prevent child sex exploitation and child prostitution.

Wendy Shepherd, of Barnardo’s, explained at a Middlesbrough Borough Council meeting today (Wednesday, April 9) that the sex trade is moving off the streets due to social media.

The meeting was held following a disturbing report into prostitution in Teesside published last month which revealed that the majority of prostitutes in the area began selling sex before they turned 16.

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Ms Shepherd said the charity and partner agencies currently had 160 children currently being sexually exploited on their books in an area stretching from Darlington to Redcar and Hartlepool.

Forty seven of the cases were in Middlesbrough.

However the figures are probably just “the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Braithwaite, chairman of Middlesbrough’s Safeguarding Children’s Board, who told the meeting: “We don’t really know the extent of it. The more we look for it, the more we find.”

Middlesbrough Council’s community safety scrutiny committee held the meeting at Middlesbrough Town Hall, following a report commissioned by The Northern Rock Foundation which found that many prostitutes had been involved in the sex trade since they were underage teenagers.

Coun Frances McIntyre, who chaired the meeting, explained she had convened various agencies involved in protecting children, including the police, to try and understand better how the council can help combat the problem.

The council heard that one solution was better awareness training of professionals in hospitals and schools to help spot the signs of abuse.

She added that due to information shared on social media teenagers were being taken, sometimes via taxis, to parties or hotels, where they were abused instead of being sent on to the streets.

She said a plan from a number of agencies was being organised to provided information and training to taxi firms, small hotels and guest houses to better spot potential abuse. It is expected the new awareness campaign will start in the summer.

She said: “For every £1 we spend on protecting children, it saves the tax-payer £12 in the end...My message to the council is to make safeguarding a number one priority.”

Better information sharing between agencies and the possible negative effects of potential budget cuts were also discussed at the council meeting.

Members of the committee will now work on recommendations on helping professionals combat child sex abuse which will be handed to the full council.