ALMOST one girl a day is being referred to a special team set up to tackle sexual exploitation of young people, it has been revealed.

The Engage team, made up of social workers, police officers, and other child experts, has received 130 referrals since its launch in March this year.

Engage was created to target those who prey on youngsters by grooming them for sex - often in return for gifts, alcohol or drugs.

It is currently working with 28 girls and their families in the Blackburn with Darwen area.

The figures have been revealed as part of Blackburn with Darwen Council’s Keep Safe Week, organised by the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board.

But not all of those referred to the unit are being taken on by the team, which only deals with high risk youngsters.

Detective Sergeant Mark Whelan, of Engage, said: "The number initially appears high, but not everyone that is referred to us is actually in need of our help.

"It may be that they are having problems at home and instead they will receive assistance from a more fitting team, like social services.

"We believe the high number of referrals to Engage is because of the good work we have been doing to raise awareness of sexual exploitation, which means people are coming forward to report their concerns."

He added: “We have visited a huge number of social services teams and we’ve now got a missing from home co-ordinator from the police working with the team and helping to raise awareness of the warning signs for young people.

“We’ve also built up good relationships with schools and we are supporting them to raise awareness with staff and pupils.

“At the same time, we are seeing a growing number of successful prosecutions and we like to think that this is giving people the confidence to report cases to us.”

The issue of child sexual exploitation was first highlighted by the Lancashire Telegraph in 2006, when an investigation revealed the problem of girls being befriended by groups of men, who showered them with gifts and attention then give them drink and drugs before demanding sex.

Our Keep Them Safe Campaign was launched to raise awareness and encourage law enforcement and police ran an initial crackdown, before Engage was set up to tackle the problem.

Engage has a dedicated phone line that anyone can call for support and advice. The number is (01254) 267790.