The sex abuse scandal in Rotherham could be an indication of a nationwide endemic, a police chief has warned.
The leading officer concerned with child abuse, chief constable of Norfolk Simon Bailey, told the Guardian that the sexual abuse of children had for "too long been a hidden crime".
"We don't know for sure. But I think it's tens of thousands of victims [a year] of an appalling crime," he said.
The Rotherham scandal caused outrage in August, when a damning report found that at least 1,400 children had been sexually exploited in the South Yorkshire town between 1997 and 2013.
The investigation revealed that 157 reports of child sexual exploitation had been made to the police in 2013, and as many as 30 per cent of the victims were already known to social services.
Further reports suggested that authorities had failed to address the abuse for fear of appearing to be racist, as the majority of the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage.
Bailey has now said that it is unhelpful to focus on Asian gangs, for fear of losing the "bigger picture" of child abuse throughout the UK.
"There has been an unhealthy focus on that particular model of abuse and we cannot afford to take our eye off the fact that it is but one model and we have to look at the bigger picture," he said.
"[This fixation] is rather overshadowing a far, far, bigger picture, and that bigger picture is that 90% of child sexual abuse takes place in the home where crimes are being perpetuated upon victims by people they know already. It is really important that we get some context around this."
Bailey also indicated that the high-profile nature of the abuse in Rotherham may well lead to the uncovering of far more widespread cases.
"[We] might find many more Rotherhams to come," he said.
Simon Bass, chief executive officer of The Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), says he's "not surprised" by Bailey's comments.
"We have seen gangs of men act in cohort to abuse many vulnerable children. While Rotherham has made the headlines, so have abuse in many other cities such as Derby, and is likely to be happening in other towns across the UK," he said. "While the police have a vital role to play in pursuing prosecutions of those who have harmed these children, it is vital that all agencies not just social workers, but teachers and health workers also play their part in helping to prevent such abuse. This means engaging with often vulnerable girls to ensure that they are kept safe."
Bass added that churches also have a significant role to play "as one of the largest providers of children's and youth work," and noted the importance of good training to ensure that victims are given help as early as possible.
"Many Christian organisations are meeting young people on the street such as Street Pastors, and detached youth workers. They need training in recognising the signs of possible child sexual exploitation and to pass on any concerns to the statutory authorities," he explained.
Bass also said that it's imperative that authorities are not "afraid" to deal with cases, regardless of fears of being considered prejudiced against certain groups.
"We need to get beyond this and ensure children's voices are heard, listened to, be believed and action taken to protect the children, and pursue those responsible for the crimes," he said.