Figures show the number of referrals to Peterborough City Council has risen from 39 in 2019 to 198 in 2020 (more than 400 per cent) – the only years where figures are available.
Broken down, the council received referrals from 37 individual children in 2019 and 128 in 2020.
Children’s charity the NSPCC said it was “vital” that resources are in place to place to protect children, while police and the council said greater confidence in reporting offences could explain why the numbers had risen so drastically.
An NSPCC East of England spokesman said: “Child exploitation, in all its forms, is an abhorrent form of grooming and these figures highlight why it is so vital that resources are in place to help protect our children from abuse.
“We all have a responsibility to think about, recognise and ultimately speak out against the exploitation of our children so we can help to protect them and prosecute offenders. Exploitation can involve offering children gifts, attention, drugs or alcohol and, unfortunately, the young people may not realise they are being manipulated.
“Like all forms of abuse, we must be clear this is never the child’s fault and, by speaking out, we hope, we will empower them to recognise unhealthy relationships and perpetrators’ grooming behaviour.”
This came on the back of Operation Erle which saw 10 men and boys receiving sentences totalling 114 years and nine months.
A spokesperson for the council said: “Partner agencies in Peterborough work very closely together to safeguard and protect young people from criminal exploitation. We have extensively reviewed and improved the ways in which we are able to identify young people at risk of exploitation.
“The local Safeguarding Children Partnership Board has developed extensive guidance and processes that help all those working with young people to better identify young people at risk of being exploited in this way, and to target support services appropriately.
“These developments mean that we are better at identifying those at risk of exploitation, and this has contributed to the rise in the number of referrals concerning child criminal exploitation in recent years.
“Our utmost priority is the safety of children and young people in Peterborough and we will continue to work alongside the police, community safety partnership, public health teams, schools and the voluntary sector to tackle this issue.
“The criminal exploitation of children and young people is a serious crime which can have far-reaching consequences for communities. We would urge anyone who is a victim or has witnessed criminal exploitation to contact the police in the first instance.”
Detective Chief Inspector Andrea Warren said: “Protecting children from exploitation is a force priority and we have a dedicated team who work tirelessly with colleagues across the constabulary to safeguard young people. This involves close partnership working and direct contact with children who have been identified as being at risk of exploitation.
“In recent years there has been a widening of the definition of child exploitation to encompass those being criminally exploited as well as sexually. This form of exploitation often involves teenagers being coerced into selling drugs for older dealers.
“A lot of work has been done to increase awareness of the signs of exploitation and encourage people to report concerns. This may, at least in part, explain the increase in reports.
“We would encourage anyone who is concerned for the welfare of a child to tell us so that we can investigate and do all we can to protect them.”