There have been 14 cases of children in the care of the State suspected of being sexually exploited to date this year, according to new figures from Tusla, the child and family agency.
Recent research expressed “grave concern” that vulnerable teenage girls in State care were being targeted and sexually exploited by co-ordinated “gangs” of predatory men.
The study, published last month, warned that in some cases teenage girls were being picked up from residential homes for children in care by groups of men “practically every night of the week”.
The “predatory” gangs were grooming girls into carrying out sexual acts in exchange for goods, such as clothes or jewellery, or under the coercion of an older man they viewed as their boyfriend.
The research, from academics in the University College Dublin (UCD) school of social work, was based on interviews carried out last year with staff and organisations working with children in care.
New figures from Tusla show that, to date this year, the agency has made 14 reports to gardaí about the suspected sexual exploitation of children in care.
Last year the agency reported 20 such suspected cases to gardaí.
There were nine reports of suspected exploitation in 2021, the year Tusla introduced a new policy to better identify and track the problem.
The figures, seen by The Irish Times, were released in response to a parliamentary question from Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.
In total, Tusla made 27 reports to gardaí last year about concerns children were being sexually exploited. The latest figures show the majority of those - 20 cases - related to children in care.
While there are about 5,600 children in State care, only about 400 live in group care homes run by either Tusla or contracted providers.
The findings of the recent study into the exploitation of girls in care were “alarming”, Mr O’Gorman told Ms Whitmore.
The Minister said his department had sought a “detailed report” from Tusla on the research, as well as a further breakdown of how many reports of suspected exploitation were about girls in residential care homes.
Ms Whitmore, the Social Democrats spokeswoman for children, said the latest figures showed “this is clearly a big problem”. It appeared there had been a “real slowness” from authorities to face up to the issue, she said.
Tusla only started to record cases of suspected exploitation separately to reports of sexual abuse at the start of 2021, after concerns came to light several months beforehand about one alleged abuse ring targeting a group of girls in care.
“There needs to be a focus from Government on this, these are our most vulnerable children,” Ms Whitmore said.
“This has been happening for a long time not just in Ireland but internationally ... There was a real slowness to deal with this,” she said.