Children for sale on the streets of UK cities

The Mail on Sunday magazine, November 21 1993

Scenes from a city. England, the autumn of 1993.  In a McDonald’s hamburger bar, two boys sit at a table. Jamie is eleven; he is small and slim with blond hair, pale blue eyes and a face with the kind of impish innocence that makes old ladies want to pat him on the head. Luke is 13, chubby with pink puppy-fat cheeks and a chunky little body whose roundness is exaggerated by the padded red anorak which he insists on wearing indoors and out, regardless of the weather.

Jamie is busy. He has a fistful of cheeseburger, a mouthful of chips, he’s flicking through an old Beano laid out on his lap and he’s talking all the time. Every so often he throws himself backwards and laughs as loud as a donkey so that several of the neat little families who are sitting at other tables turn and stare across the restaurant at him. He doesn’t care if they do.

He’s got a lot to say – about his mum who is quite cute but she doesn’t like him, about his first dad who used to be a mechanic except he doesn’t work no more and about his second dad who came along later and wasn’t the same, and all about his eight brothers and two sisters who lived in the council house with him a long time ago before he got took into care. He remembers going to the seaside once, to Blackpool, and he talks about the sand and the sea and the food they ate, but he’s not saying why he got took into care. “That’s personal and private and confidential.”

Then he grabs his milkshake and starts to tell. “My mum couldn’t put up with me. She did used to slap me. I don’t know why. One time, I did have this knife and I stuck it in the door real hard and then I went downstairs and stole some biscuits. I kept on running off, stealing things, not going to school, stuff like that. She kept on smacking me and that. She put pepper and salt and fairy liquid in my mouth if I talked dirty. And vinegar. She put that down my mouth. I stole her jewellery and I sold it at school.

“At school, I used to get beaten up, get my head pushed down the toilet, get kicked up the whatsit. Everything happened to me. My mum said I raped my sister. She’s seven – she was then. I was just asleep in the bed. I wasn’t doing much. I was just touching her up. It was my brother did it. My mum came in and told me to get out. So me and my brother got took into care. I was nine then. That’s all. I did see her a few times, and she just got really fed up with seeing me and she stopped. I ain’t seen her, don’t know when I seen her. I did phone her up but she said it was a wrong number.”

He fills his straw with milkshake, leans back and blows a sticky white arc of the stuff straight across the table, right into his friend Luke’s face. Luke just sits there grinning with little white gobs hanging off his red, round cheeks and Jamie starts talking again. “I was always getting bullied in the children’s home.”

Luke wipes his face on his sleeve and says it’s true. “Because he’s small”

“Kicking and thumping and strangling and robbing. And I got sexually abused by a lad called Liam. He was 15 and he got me and he said ‘Come in here, Jamie, I’ve got something for you’. So I went in and he locked the door and barricaded it and the staff were banging on the door and he was doing everything to me. He was naked and he was doing it up my arse. I was shouting ‘Get him off me’. And the staff broke the window. After that, he was doing it to me all the time and I used to let him. One day, he got me really pissed off, so I said to one of the staff  ‘Can I speak to you for a minute?’ I told him all about what Liam did to me and that stuff. So he got moved. And I got moved and all.”

That’s when he met Luke, in the next home he went to. He was ten then and Luke was twelve and they used to see each other in the home but they didn’t get to be friends until they both started working together. Luke was already doing it, but he wasn’t the one who put Jamie on to it.

“There was these two bigger lads, Wayne and Anthony, and they got me in the shower and Wayne said ‘Get some money for us or we’ll blow your knees off’. So I had to get a lot of money, but that’s not how I got started. That was Michael Jones who put me on the game. He was 15. He took me down town and he asked me if I would get some money for him. I said ‘How?’. He said ‘Go to that man and ask him if he wants business’. So I did, and the man said ‘What do you do?’ I said ‘I don’t know’. And I shouted at Michael ‘What do I do? He wants to know what I do’.

“So Michael said ‘Tell him you’ll ‘T’ him’. That means toss. ‘T’ for toss. Only I didn’t know that then. He took me round the corner and I said ‘How do you toss?’ and he said ‘Do this’. I did it and he give me £50. I gave £25 to Michael and I spent mine on sweets. That’s when I was ten.”

Luke wags his quarter-pounder across the table. “He’s always doing it, picking up punters. I used to do it as often as him, but I stopped since I got molested…. I started when I was 12. I was in this home. I been in homes since I was seven, cos my mum had stress and she didn’t have no cigarettes and she had no money and once we did go to a friend’s house and we got her a pound for fags to make her better. Anyway, my dad died, he killed his self – you probably read about it, most people have read about it. And I went to a home. And when I was 12, I went to this one where I hadn’t been before and I heard them talking about being rent boys – give a man a blow job and then you get paid for it. So I thought ‘Well, I ain’t got much money for fags and things’ so I went down there with them. The first one I did was called Terry. I spent the night with him, at his house. I done loads.”

Luke sighs and chews for a while. “I was all right with it but I got molested. I was walking down the canal, it was about two in the morning, and this punter followed me and he jumped out at me and he started touching me up. He didn’t pay me. And he was pulling at my trousers and he tore the button off and he was trying to get them off me. He was trying to kiss me. He was trying to shove his dick up me.”

Luke puts the chewed remains of his hamburger down on his tray and stands up by the side of the table to finish his story. “So he was like this – behind me – and I elbowed him one in the stomach and got round so I could kick him in the balls and then I just ran, but my trousers were all down round my knees like this.”

And he waddles across the restaurant waving his backside and jerking an imaginary pair of trousers up round his thighs. Jamie cackles with delight at Luke’s performance but he still has his own story to finish. “I been with loads of men. I can’t make money any other way. Bus fares, fags, sweets, toys, drugs. I know it’s wrong. You know that one I went with first, that time? I knew it was wrong, because of the way he looked at me.”

Jamie slits his eyes till they’re tight and hard. “Like this,” he mutters. Then he laughs very loud again and goes back to his Beano.

*

The city is Nottingham, but it could be almost any city in England. Nobody knows exactly how many children are now selling themselves on street corners and in sex clubs and public toilets. A few children have always stumbled into the fringes of prostitution: the adolescent boys on the ‘meat rack’ on Piccadilly Circus in the West End of London; a trickle of angry run-aways looking to outrage their parents. But in the last few years, something has changed. Nobody knows how many of them there are now, but then again nobody has tried to find out.

Social workers often know about their own children, but the Department of Health makes no effort to collect the figures across the country. Police sometimes arrest them and caution them, but many more are never caught or are simply sent home without triggering the criminal records. Those who have run away from home are almost certainly registered as missing in some police file somewhere, but no one gathers the numbers. No one gathers the children either.

But on the streets, the truth is clear. And the social workers and the police and the older prostitutes and the pimps are all agreed that children are now selling themselves in a way and on a scale that is entirely new. For all official purposes, these children may be invisible, but the punters know that it is now possible to drive into almost any big city in England by day or night and buy a child to have sex with. It did not used to be like this.

Forest Road, Nottingham, on a Thursday evening. The punters head north out of the city, up Mansfield Road, and turn left at the lights to start cruising through the network of genteel suburban streets where the women stand. Some of them have been standing here every day for years.

Joy, who works on ‘TV corner’, has been out here since she was 18, earning enough to support her heroin habit and her boyfriend’s too. She’s 32 now, she’s had both her children taken into care, including one who was born with a habit, and she’s still out on the pavement every evening with her thigh-high boots and her stiff blond wig. Old Mary works up the hill from her in Southey Street. She must be in her 60s but she still has her regulars who pick her up in the shadows. There’s Ann, who looks so thin and ill (everyone says she has AIDS, but no one knows for sure) and Rachel, who was beaten up so badly by her pimp that she finally plucked up the courage to get him jailed, though he’ll be out again soon.

Down in the shadows on Balmoral Road, a tall, elegant blond woman paces slowly backwards and forwards, poised on her high heels, her backside barely covered by her tight, white skirt, her blouse hanging open to reveal her breasts. This is Lisa. She has been working this beat for three years and she is now 14 years old.

She sits in the car to talk. She says she was a happy little girl, an only child, who had a mother and a father and who went to school and ran around in the playground and who hardly ever thought at all of what she would do when she grew up and who certainly never dreamed for a moment that she would end up here.

“When I was ten, my mum and dad split up. They had been having some rows but I didn’t know how bad it was, though I had seen him hit her. Anyway, when they split up, neither of them wanted me, so I ended up in care.” She says this dead straight and without a flicker of feeling. “I did used to cry about it, but I don’t now. They just didn’t want me. So I was put in a home.

“I was there for about a year and a half and I got beat up all the time so I kept running away – London, Scotland, Manchester, Birmingham. They kept bringing me back. I just spent all my time down in the town, never at school. One day, when I was eleven, I met this woman. She was on the way to get her dole and she was talking to me and she said ‘You’ve got the figure to go on the game.’ I said ‘What’s the game?’ She said ‘You know, sell your body like’.

“You know, I didn’t know. I said ‘For what? How much do you get?’ She said she got about four hundred a week, but I could get more because most of the punters want younger girls. She said I’d get seven or eight hundred. She took me to the shops, got some clothes and she took me down here. I had this very short mini-skirt and a very low-cut T-shirt. I thought, you know, I’d just try it.”

Around the corner is Dusty, also 14, though she is a relative newcomer: she was 13 when she started in September of last year. She had been in care since she was six months old, when her mother gave her up. She says it was the other girls in the children’s home who first took her out on the street. The first few times, she just sat on a wall and watched and felt too frightened to join in but she says she wanted the money so she could go out drinking with the other girls and, in the end, she went out one night with a 12-year-old who understood the game.

They talked about it all and the 12-year-old told her it was easy and she didn’t have to do oral or anal. Dusty had had sex once before with this guy who was 19, though she thought it was crap, and she thought maybe it would be all right to try working, so she stood on the kerb on her own. She is very slim with coffee-coloured skin and a quiet, shy manner.

“I stood there for ages and I was getting pissed off. I was about to go home and this man stopped in his car and so I told him the price – 20 in the car, 30 at this other girl’s room. I was really frightened when I was getting in this car, in case he was police or if he turned out to be a rapist.

“I went in the car and he ended up giving me 90. He said he’d give me 50 for oral, so I gave him oral with a durex. I’d never done oral before. It was just natural. I knew how to do it. And then he said he’d give me 40 more for sex. So I said OK. When I got out of his car, I threw up. I felt really disgusted. I felt so dirty. I ran into the children’s home and I had to have about five baths before I felt clean again.”

But she carried on. Her first punter is a regular now, and she’s proud of having him. She earns good money, and she’s proud of that, too. “I spend money on everything I like. If I see something I want, I just buy it. I smoke a bit of draw, go to clubs, but mostly I buy clothes. The way I see it, no one has helped me make my money. It’s all mine. So I spend it on what I want, when I want and if I want to.”

She says she’s happy on the game. She’s got used to having sex with strangers. She may be only 14 but she is not interested in being a child any more. At the end of last year, just after she had started working as a prostitute, her social workers found her a foster family, but Dusty refused to play their game. She went to pubs and clubs and stayed out all night with men friends, she stole off her new foster parents and after a few months, they gave in and sent her back to the children’s home. Her childhood was stolen long ago.

She doesn’t live in the children’s home any more. She got beaten up so badly there by some of the other children that she ended up making formal statements to the police and now she has found herself a nest with another family, where she is happy because her 19-year-old ‘sister’ is an experienced prostitute who often works alongside her on Arboretum Street.

Her social worker did try to stop her working, particularly when there was a police purge earlier this year and ‘the Vice’ picked her up in a van load of women. She tried giving a false name, but they photographed her and took her finger prints and found she had been done before for shop-lifting. They called in her social worker. “She gave me this big lecture. I told her I was going to carry on. She can’t stop me. She can’t be with me, like, 24/7. So she got me joined up with the health clinic, talked about AIDS and everything. Now I’m all right.”

She says she’ll carry on until she’s earned enough to stop. The only thing that really worries her is the children who are even younger who occasionally join her. “I’ve got a cousin who’s nine who’s worked out here. She’s in care, too, but she’s been working as a prostitute. And I think that’s wrong. I don’t want her to have anything to do with people on the beat. She got a slap from my auntie.”

Around the corner, Lisa is back from another punter, still strutting on her high heels. She says her social worker is like a sister to her. “I can really open up to her, tell her what’s going on. But she’s never going to stop me working on the beat. I’m supposed to have been in a children’s home for the last three years but the only time I go back there is if I get arrested and then I just walk straight out. They can’t stop you. It’s what I want to do. I’m not saying I like it, but it’s easy money.”

A blue Ford Sierra with two men in in it drifts by, and Lisa steps back sharply from the kerb. “The Vice,” she says. “You can always spot them. They try and play all these tricks on you, like one of them will drive up and ask if you want business and there’s the other one lying on the back seat under a coat so he can witness you soliciting. Or one of them’ll come up on foot and ask you for business and when he gets you to the car, his mate’s in there to nick you. You can always tell’em on foot – white baseball boots. They all wear them.”

There was a time when Lisa was the youngest girl on the street round here. “There’s loads of girls out here younger than me now. There’s one called Bernadette who only comes out at weekends. She’s 12. She’s got blond curly hair, but she’s a squealer. She goes with punters and then tells everyone, gets them into trouble. I know she’s 12, because I used to be in the home with her. She’s still in the home, but she has a boyfriend who’s in his 30s. And there’s a little one called Shelly who works on Friday and Saturday night, who’s nine or ten.”

Lisa never waits long for a punter. They like them young. Her arithmetic is not too good but, thinking about it, she reckons that if she’s been charging £20 or £30 for each of her punters and earning £800 a week for three years, then, even allowing for some of her punters being regulars, by now, having reached the aged of fourteen and a half, she must have had sex with something like three thousand different men.

*

The children on the streets do not attempt to understand why there are suddenly so many of them but, from the sidelines, the few adults who have tried to protect them think they may know. It is, at its heart, a story about poverty.

All through the 1980s, the poorest ten per cent of the population became poorer. Between 1979 and 1990, their real income fell by 14%. Poverty has always been fertile ground for prostitution, the simplest solution for a mother without money and without skills. And during the 1980s, the number of women prosecuted for prostitution in England and Wales soared upwards, quadrupling between 1981 and 1991. But most of these women were adults.

Voluntary agencies, who have watched the epidemic of prostitution sweep through the children in their care, look back to 1988 for the beginnings of the change. One senior charity worker said: “We would point to the poll tax which meant that children over 16 became a financial burden on their parents with the result that many were pushed out on to the street, and we would point to the changes in benefit regulations in April 1988 which meant that children between the ages of 16 and 18 were no longer allowed to sign on or claim housing benefit. This pushed more people from that age group on to the game.

“Once that age group were working as prostitutes in significant numbers, they acted as a kind of bridge for the even younger ones. The younger ones are their brothers and sisters, or they are in the same children’s homes or they have simply seen these older children doing it, and they have decided to copy. We now have a sub-culture, in which children who have no money look upon prostitution as an easy way to get it. That includes very young children.”

And, in the background, the poverty is still at work on dead-end estates where no one works and no one escapes, where the houses are rotten and the schools little better, where the doorways are haunted by crack heads and smack heads and every kind of petty villain, where men and women are riddled with stress and aggression and families are cracking up under the strain: junk food, junk culture, junk humans drowning in their own lives.

Now, the first generation of children from this underclass of the 1980s is emerging – abused, confused, streetwise and hardened, reared to make money. They know sex as a weapon which has often already been used against them; now they can use it for themselves. They’re not frightened of the police or the punters. They don’t care too much what happens to them. And so far as they can see, no one else does either.

Forest Recreation Ground, after dark. In the pool of yellow light that falls from the open door of the building, a tall slim boy named Adam stands leaning his right shoulder against the door frame, his hands jammed into the pockets of his crumpled black jeans. Above his head, in big black letters, the sign says ‘Men’.

Down the tarmac track, the punters drive slowly through the park, headlights dipped. A blue Vauxhall Cavalier crawls slowly to the end of the track swoops round to the right in front of the boy without changing its speed and carries on crawling back up the other side of the track and away into the city. Now a red Ford Escort. Now another Cavalier. Just looking. Not buying. Every so often, the boy in the doorway leans forward, with his hands still jammed in his pockets, and drops a long gobbet of spit onto the ground in front of him.

Now, a red Renault Five prowls down the track, its headlights bumping over the potholes, curves gently round and comes to a halt in front of the boy. Adam strides forward to the driver’s window, props his left elbow on the roof and leans down to talk. It takes a whole minute. The boy is nodding and listening, asking a question, scratching the small of his back with his right hand until he nods once more and walks quickly round the back of the car and into the front passenger seat. Before he drives him away, the man in the white nylon shirt leans over and helps him with his seatbelt, like a good father picking his boy up from school. The red Renault turns and spins off into the city.

These are the public toilets where Jamie and Luke and all the other rent boys come to work. Jamie is well-known here, a favourite with the regulars because of his youth and girlish good looks. “I do tossing for ten or twenty, depends what I think. I don’t do sucking or, anyway, I have done sucking with a condom but I don’t want to, but I do let them screw me between the legs if they pay me for it.”

The boys go off with the punters in their cars, to quiet dark places, often to Colwick Park on the banks of the River Trent on the edge of the city. Jamie says he gets frightened some times. “They start telling you to do things you don’t want to, telling me to suck them off, trying to get up my arse. There was one kept calling me a little bastard and he was slapping me”

But most punters are OK, they say. They pay their money and they get what they want and as often as not on a dark night in Colwick Park, a passer-by may see a middle-aged man in his company car, hunched over a little boy’s hand, pumping like a dog on a bitch.

There are other parts of the city where the rent boys work. Most days, from the early afternoon onwards, there are young boys selling themselves at Victoria bus station, a great concrete cavern of a place, full of bright white light and the sound of roaring diesel engines. There are warnings all over the place: no skate-boarding, no roller-skating, no cycling and don’t feed the pigeons. Yet the wooden seat nearest the entrance is used so routinely for the sale of boys that it is known to all of them simply as ‘the renters’ bench’.

There are a few, like Slim, who always work the bus station. He says he ripped off a couple of punters in the Forest – ran off with their wallets – and he is scared to go back there. Not that life is safe in the bus station either. He sits on the renters bench with his shirt sleeves pulled out over his hands, shivering and sniffing and constantly watching for the little of gang of black lads who like to beat up the rent boys and steal their money. Some of the drivers in the taxi rank there have seen the boys being beaten, but they don’t interfere: “You end up spending bloody hours with the police, making statements and all that. I ain’t got the time for it.”

Slim has been in care since he was eleven. He says the social workers know what he does for money and have threatened to lock him up in the secure unit, but no one else knows. Two or three days a week, if he feels like it, he goes to school. “I don’t tell other kids about it,” he shrugs and rubs the end of his nose on his sleeve. “It’s embarrassing, isn’t it. Fuck knows what they would do if they knew. They would be so shocked. They wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t want them to know. I don’t want anyone to know.”

Slim carries a knife. Some of the girls do, too. Most of them have had bad experiences with punters. Lisa says she has often been knocked about but there was only one time that things got really out of control. “It was a Friday night and I had made £220 that afternoon and night already and it was about 11.30 which is when all the weirdos come out of the pubs. This guy came up and I took him back to this room I use for punters. I was lying on the bed, stripped naked and he pulled out a knife and he held it to my neck. He kept me there for nine hours.

“Most of the time, he was just tossing himself off. He started cutting me. I’ve still got these scars round my groin and everything. And he was using a chair leg on me. You know: in me. He cut me a lot. I know exactly when it was, because it was just before my 13th birthday. Nine hours, he had me. I went to the police and they nicked him. They told me he’d done it before, and he was sent down for it.”

There are two girls on the streets round here who always stand together, Emma and Jenny. Jenny doesn’t do much business. She is there to look after Emma because she has had one bad experience after another. She is 16 and she is not just addicted but wholly devoted to crack cocaine at £20 a hit. In the two years she has been on the streets, Emma has been raped four times and, on one occasion, a man broke into her flat and tried to strangle her. Her brother, Darren, found her with red marks around her neck and thought she was dead.

For a while, her mother, Nan, used to come out on the street with her. She says she knew she couldn’t stop Emma working so the best she could do was to try to keep her safe. She took the numbers of her punters’ cars and watched to make sure she was back within half an hour. But Nan got arrested by the Vice and she was taken to court for controlling a prostitute. The jury convicted her, but the judge accepted her explanation and put her on probation for two years. In the meantime, Emma ran into her worst trouble yet.

Last summer, when she was 15, a 19-year-old Canadian woman known as Fat Natalie set up a little business for her. She introduced her to a car salesman from the city who was interested in violence. Fat Natalie said he would pay £120 for the chance to beat Emma, and Emma, for the love of crack, agreed. The salesman paid her, paid Fat Natalie for the introduction, drove her out into the country on the far side of Ilkeston, tied her to a fence and whipped her with his leather belt until her back and buttocks were striped with welts.

When her mother, Nan, saw the state of her later that night, she went straight to the police, who soon discovered that this was not the first time that Fat Natalie had served up a young girl for the car salesman’s fantasy. She had been paid to provide him with a 14-year-old who had been similarly beaten, and with another 15-year-old, Nina, who had sat in his car with Fat Natalie while he went to the bank for the money to buy her but had changed her mind at the last minute. Fat Natalie Meadows and the salesman, whose name is John House, were both convicted at Nottingham Crown Court in October. And Emma is back on the streets, working for crack, with bruise-blue rings round her eyes, while Jenny watches over her for her mum.

Fat Natalie represents one final reason why there are more children than ever before working on the streets. As the children have made themselves available, so the punters have become more interested in them with the rapid result that pimps and procurers have moved in to satisfy this new demand in the market place. They hang around the children’s homes like farmers at an auction.

According to Notts Social Services, there is one pimp who calls up and poses as a social worker to try and con information out of them about the whereabouts of young girls he has selected for the street. Fat Natalie was never so subtle. She used to hang around in the bus station, watching for runaways and inviting them back to her flat for shelter. Once there, she and her man would work on them, mixing threats and promises until the child agreed to work for them. Nina started that way.

Like most of the other children, she had stumbled out of a no-hope family on a no-chance estate – her father dead in a car crash, her step father raping her when she was eleven, her mother refusing to believe her and chucking her out – and she had arrived in a children’s home, seething with misery and resentment. Fat Natalie put her to work, but that was only the beginning.

“I didn’t really work that often for her, only if I needed the money. The thing was, one of my sisters was on the game round here and she had this pimp called Lucky, and she kind of talked to him and they decided that I should work for him, only I didn’t know that. I was talking to her one day on the street and Lucky was there and he lent me his umbrella. I didn’t understand what they were up to at the time, but they said I had to take it round to his house the next day to give it back.”

Lucky then did what any clever pimp does long before he indulges in any kind of violence: he seduced her, made her fall in love with him. “There was about two months when it was really great. I was 14 and I’d had all these horrible things happen to me and suddenly here was this man who really cared about me. It was so good. I would have done anything for him. I worked for him. I was proud of it. I gave him all my money. I wanted to. I really loved him. Then it all started to change. He started hitting me. Beating’s a way of life to me. I’ve always been beaten. I didn’t mind all that much. I still loved him, but I never knew what he was going to do next.

“I’d go out with him and his friends and I’d just sit there and not say a word in case I said something wrong. But he’d still beat me round the room. Then we had good times, too. We went to Tenerife together. Everything was fine.”

After a year of love and violence, Nina began to rebel. One night, when she was standing out on the pavement and he came by to bully her for cash, she told him she had had enough. “I said I wasn’t going to work for him no more. He drove over me in his car, broke both my arms and fractured my skull. I was in hospital for six weeks. Then he said he was sorry, so I went back with him.”

A lot of the women have no pimps. If pimps approach them, they say they are working for one of the really heavy ones and that usually frightens them off. But not always. Leona, who is 15 and who uses so much cocaine that she has almost lost the ability to sleep, was beaten into submission by a pimp who used a baseball bat on her. But he lost control of her when another bunch of pimps snatched her off the street.

“We was working round here, me and my friend, and this car stopped in front of us and two black guys got out and they grabbed us and pushed us into the back seat and then got in on either side of us. There was two more of them in the front and they just drove off and we said ‘Where you taking us?’ and they said ‘You’ll find out, shut your mouth’. They drove all the way to Birmingham and put us on the street and then they parked there and watched us to make sure we didn’t run. So we had to work for them.”

But the pimps and the procurers appear to have been too successful. The price of a child on the streets of an English city has started to fall, a sure sign with any market that supply is running ahead of demand. There are so many children who are willing to sell themselves that there are small girls on the Forest Road now who are for sale for as little as a tenner.

*

Why doesn’t anybody stop them? The police know about them. David Dawson, who runs the Notts County Anti Vice Squad, was so worried by the sudden rise in the number of juvenile girls that his men were arresting last year, that he contacted the city’s social services so that they could work together. Now, every children’s home in the city has appointed a social worker who collects fragments of intelligence on the pimps and procurers who are exploiting their children. They pass it back to David Dawson, whose men piece it all together in search of culprits. But the solution is not so simple.

Dawson’s squad consists of only one sergeant and half a dozen men. They are dealing with obscene publications and paedophile rings and illegal sex clubs and he says himself that in the league table of crimes he has to deal with, street prostitution is down around number ten. It is a public nuisance, not a major crime. From the point of view of his men on plain-clothes patrol, the law is one big loophole: if they see a man trying to buy sex from a child, they can charge him with nothing more serious than if they found him buying sex from an adult, ie kerb crawling.

In Canada, a Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution in 1985 concluded that they needed a new law to make it an offence, punishable with up to 14 years in jail, to encourage a child to have sex for money. In the absence of such a law, which would attack pimp and punter alike, the police attack the child. The Childrens Society, which is supported by the Church of England, complains bitterly that children who, in the eyes of the law are not old enough to consent to sex, are nonetheless punished by the police when men pick them up and pay them for it.

The social workers, who are supposed to care for most of these children, have even less power. At Notts County Council, a senior official said: “In our experience, in the last few years the nature of the young people we are dealing with in care has changed. We have tremendous problems with them. Our community homes now contain a combination of the most damaged, deprived, depraved and delinquent children, and they are incredibly difficult to work with. And our problem is that we are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We pick up the pieces when they have been damaged. At best, we may find a remedy. At worst, we are just running a damage-limitation exercise.”

If social workers see a child going out to work as a prostitute, the law forbids them from physically stopping them. Guidance issued by the Department of Health after the 1989 Children’s Act, specifies that they may stand in a doorway to obstruct a child’s path, or take a child’s arm to secure its attention, but they may hold a child against its will only if it is immediately necessary to prevent ‘a significant injury’.

Senior social workers insist that even if the law allowed them to hold and lock up the children, they would not want to do it. “It simply delays the problem and damages our relationship with the child. The only way to deal with this is to build a relationship of trust with the child – which is incredibly difficult after what they have been through – and then, having done that, to try to influence the child. We lay down clear and simple rules but the child has to decide to make a change. Otherwise, nothing else will work. Not without the child’s help.”

Sometimes, against the odds, they succeed. Often, they can only fail. They know that their homes are a source of contamination as children sexually abuse each other and lead one another out on to the game. But as an organisation, they are reeling from their own version of the poverty which afflicts the children. Last year, they closed two children’s homes. This year, they are closing three more. Most of the staff in the homes are inexperienced and unqualified, and, for all their efforts, unable to deal with the explosively complicated children in their care.

This summer, in their desperation to prevent young girls going out on the street, several childrens homes in Nottingham decided to confiscate their mini-skirts and stockings and suspenders. The department wanted to destroy the clothes but could not do so without the permission of the girls’ parents, some of whom objected, even though they understood that their daughters were working on the game.

While the negotiations with the parents dragged on, the girls acted. In one home, one of the elder boys broke down several doors to retrieve the clothes. In another, boys climbed up drain pipes on the outside of the home to break into the attic where the clothes were stored. In both cases, the girls, aged between 12 and 15, had persuaded the boys to do this with the promise of sexual favours. When the social workers in one home protested, the girls used the same promise to encourage a hefty teenaged boy to threaten the staff with violence. So the girls went out on the game again.

Forest Road, dusk. The older prostitutes don’t want the children on their patch. For most of them, it’s simply a matter of business: the children are driving down prices. Della grits her teeth and spits about them and recalls how she got a 13-year-old by the throat and beat her head against the iron bars of the cemetery fence. “And if I catch the little bitch out here again, I’ll have her face off her.”

Sara, who is 21 and strikingly beautiful, sees it differently. “This is a horrible life. I’ve been working for six years now, but I’m scared every time I get into a car. I’ve had a punter who beat me up with a wrench because he wanted my money. I have had a friend murdered in Leicester: the guy took her back to his house and he had the knife on the stairs waiting for her. He stabbed her 47 times. He was an ordinary, every-day guy. He just didn’t like prostitutes.

“When I first started, I thought it was so exciting and I thought I was so clever to have all this money in my pocket. I know more now. I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. It drives me mad when I hear the young girls talking and acting so flash. They think they’re so cool: ‘Oh, I can get this man, I can get that man’. It makes you want to shake them and say ‘Can you hear yourself?’

“There are some of the really young ones now who are doing it without condoms, and this place is run by drugs now. Almost all the young ones are into coke. On an average night, there are probably 40 girls out here and nowadays half of them are under 16. People will read all this in the paper and they’ll think these girls are like criminals. They’re not, you know. They’re just ordinary girls. They wouldn’t be there if all these men didn’t want them. There was one punter the other night offered me £50 just to take him to a young girl. That’s what’s really sick. Not the girls – the men who want them.”

There are broken bottles in the gutter, rusty cans and tattered crisp bags on the pavements. Lisa stands there, proud of her beauty, not so proud of her gonorrhea. Dusty says she’ll stop if only someone will give her job. Leona says she can’t stop. She owes some bastard £270 for coke and she’s worried about what he’ll do if she doesn’t get it tonight. Nina is back on the street, her bones mended. Back in her flat, she has a five-month-old boy now, Lucky’s son, conceived as she recuperated from the injuries he had inflicted on her. Lucky’s not there, though. He was caught hanging around children’s homes and two of the girls, aged 12 and 15, stood up in court and gave evidence against him. Nina wouldn’t talk though; she says she still loves him.

Down in the Forest, the boys are working as usual. One of them was raped the other week. So what? One of them was mutilated with a razor not so long ago. Another was raped on video. Jamie sits on a grey stone wall, clutching a pigeon he has caught, gently stroking its head, absent-mindedly rubbing its beak in its own shit. Kindness and cruelty, it’s all the same.

Does Jamie ever feel sad when he remembers he’s only eleven, when he thinks about life before, and about his mother? He stares at his feet for ten or twenty seconds and bubbles his lower lip. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Course I do.”

Luke pulls the hood of his anorak up over his head and down around his features, so that only his nose and the pink bulge of his cheeks poke through. “You know what they say?” he asks. “Life’s a bitch.”

And off they go, back to work, two small boys in a big city in England, in the autumn of 1993.

* The names of all children have been changed and the whereabouts of their homes has been withheld.