There were over 4,800 instances of children being reported missing across Northern Ireland last year, according to statistics obtained by UTV.
Nearly half of the kids, 2,277, were from care homes.
Almost 900 occasions were recorded when missing children could have been at risk of sexual exploitation.
This year, up until the end of October, there were 4,719 recorded cases of children going missing.
Again, just under half – 2,203 – were from care homes.
However, the number of times children were at risk of sexual exploitation rose to 947.
The new figures show just how big a battle against child sexual exploitation (CSE) the authorities are facing.
Many could be the victims of repeated abuse and often don’t even realise they are being used and abused.
Chief Superintendent George Clarke, who heads up the PSNI’s public protection unit, has the job of getting to grips with what he and others call CSE.
“The key in all of this is we’re looking at the risk identification and trying to reduce that risk.”
He continued: “Anything that indicates that any children, or any other vulnerable person within our society, is at risk is alarming.”
Changes in behaviour, possession of high value gifts such as mobile phones, and being secretive about new friends, are just some of the signs to look out for that a young person could be exploited sexually by an adult.
“It’s a responsibility that all of society has – to try and make sure that children are as safe as they possibly can be.”
The exploitation and abuse of children is an absolutely appalling crime. It’s an abomination.
Chief Supt George Clarke
More is known about child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland than just over a year ago when UTV revealed that a major police investigation was underway into a number of cases.
Cases where girls and boys were given whatever they wanted – drink, drugs and expensive gifts – in exchange for sex.
Operation Owl is only one investigation on the PSNI’s books.
At present, the PSNI has confirmed that there are 67 children are at risk that they know of.
Last month, an inquiry into child sexual exploitation revealed that paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are using fear and intimidation to sexually exploit children. Those individuals are also using after hours lock-ins at pubs to prey on them.
Some have been left fearing for their lives if they identified perpetrators, according to accounts obtained by the independent inquiry.
The report uncovered cases involving soldiers.
We cannot lock children up.
Marcella Leonard, NI Association of Social Workers
For social workers protecting the young people in their care stopping them from leaving isn’t easy.
Marcella Leonard has been a social worker for more than 20 years.
“We’re not surprised – we do know that young people are going missing from children’s homes – and their own homes.
“And therefore, we know that part of that as well -from all of the studies – is unfortunately, they are being exploited by individuals who want to exploit them for sexual gratification.”
Ms Leonard said that if young people believe, or perceive, themselves to be a relationship with a person who is 10, 15, 20 years older than them, they will want to meet up with them.
In other cases, it is fear that will lead the young person to meet up with the adult as they may have been threatened.
“We want to work with the children so it is very hard to prevent them,” she said.