Hundreds of children are at risk of sexual exploitation in the West Midlands, police revealed today

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The news comes amid a major changes in their response to the threat and criticism of the way some cases had been handled previously.

The force has now pinpointed 210 youngsters in danger of falling victim to predators but West Midland Assistant Chief Constable Carl Foulkes confessed there could be many more.

He conceded: "This presents some of the greatest challenges facing the force. It is a hidden crime that is under reported. Child sexual exploitation is not a defined crime. It is a characteristic of behaviour which makes exact data more difficult to get.

"Street grooming is still a challenge but the main problem is the internet. People are being increasingly sexualised and the younger population has ever greater access to it. There are children with ten Facebook accounts acting in a closed environment where they do not always know who they are communicating with."

Despite deep budget and staff cuts the strength of the force's Public Protection Unit - whose responsibilities include child sexual exploitation - has been more than doubled from 350 to around 800 officers and more could follow.

Police are reviewing historic sex offences against 12 to 17 year olds and trawling the force's database back to 2009 to get a better picture of the problem while forging closer links with councils and other organisations involved in protecting the vulnerable and prosecuting the predator. They also hope to develop a system that uses information from all sources to automatically provide an early risk assessment of potential victims.

There has been a 42 per cent rise in child abuse referrals since 2009. The average age of victims of child exploitation is 15 with 68 per cent either currently, or have previously been, in local authority care. More than half - 54 per cent - are white, while 87 per cent are female.

A report to the Strategic Policing and Crime Board today(tues) concluded: "We must strive to embed child sexual exploitation awareness within the mindset of frontline officers and local neighbourhood policing teams. The force understand the need to better protect vulnerable children from this and are absolutely committed to doing so."

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary recently gave the force six weeks to improve child protection and accused staff of a 'general lack of understanding' of the extent of the problem. ACC Foulkes said: "It was a timely reminder of where we need to be and identified areas where improvement is required but once we get the right staff with the right skills in place we will be up to the challenge."

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