Child Exploitation (Sexual and Criminal)


In November 2023, a link to Serious Violence Duty - Preventing and Reducing Serious Violence: Statutory Guidance for Responsible Authorities was added into Further Information.

1. Definition

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse:

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse. Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children (Working Together to Safeguard Children).

Child sexual exploitation takes many different forms. It can include contact and non-contact sexual activities and can occur online or in person, or a combination of each. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology (Working Together to Safeguard Children).

What marks out sexual exploitation from other forms of child sexual abuse is the presence of some form of exchange, for the victim and/or perpetrator or facilitator. It is critical to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a child/young person does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative happening can also fulfil the requirement for exchange.

The Home Office defines child criminal exploitation as: 'Child Criminal Exploitation… occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. Criminal exploitation of children… includes for instance children forced to work on cannabis farms or to commit theft'. (Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery: an addendum November 2018)

The UK Government defines county lines as: County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of "deal line". They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons. (Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance 2018)

The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, sexual identity, intellect, physical strength, status and access to economic or other resources.

Child exploitation is never the victim's fault, even if there is some form of exchange: all children and young people under the age of 18 have a right to be safe and should be protected from harm.

2. Who is at Risk?

Any child or young person may be at risk of exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. Child exploitation can occur in all communities and amongst all social groups and can affect girls and boys. Young people can also be exploited by other young people. All practitioners should work on the basis that it is happening in their area.

Child exploitation causes harm to children and young people, including significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for their family, including siblings (who may also be at risk of abuse).

Child exploitation has links with other forms of crime, for example, domestic violence and abuse, online and offline grooming, the distribution of abusive images of children, criminal exploitation and child trafficking. The perpetrators of exploitation are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They may target areas where children and young people gather, use parties to create networks for abuse or use technology to organise both online and offline abuse.

Children and young people can be moved from one place to another to be sexually, or criminally exploited, for example in County Lines networks or other forms of criminal exploitation. They can also be exploited by people with whom they feel they have a relationship, e.g. a boyfriend / girlfriend. In these circumstances there may be an overlap with other forms of abuse, and practitioners should decide on the best way to work with the child to keep them safe.

When working with children who are being exploited, it is important to consider who else in their circle of contacts (including siblings) may also be at risk.

The national picture on county lines continues to develop but there are recorded cases of:

  • Children as young as 12 years old being exploited or moved by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area;
  • 15-16 years is the most common age range;
  • Both males and females being exploited. There is some evidence of girls being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection;
  • White British children being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection but a person of any ethnicity or nationality may be exploited;
  • The use of social media to make initial contact with children and young people;
  • Class A drug users being targeted so that gangs can take over their homes (known as 'cuckooing').

(Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance 2018).

When children experience, or are at risk of, exploitation the relationship between their needs and vulnerabilities, the harm they are experiencing and the risk posed by the abuser(s) can create a dynamic and complex situation for the child and the practitioner. It is important that practitioners receive the supervision, support and training required to work with the child and that leaders and managers provide effective oversight and supervision of frontline practice.

3. Indicators

Anyone who has regular contact with children is in a good position to notice the changes in behaviour and physical signs that may indicate that they may be being exploited. It is important to try and identify children at risk of harm from exploitation at the earliest opportunity.

Some children may be more vulnerable, for example, children with special needs and/or learning difficulties, those in residential or foster care, those leaving care, migrant children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, victims of forced marriage and those involved in gangs, but all children are potentially at risk and practitioners should be careful about making assumptions as to who the victims or perpetrators may be.

Identifying cases of child exploitation is a difficult task, children rarely self-report that they are being exploited, and due to the nature of the grooming methods used by their abusers, often do not recognise that they are being abused. Once they are being exploited, threats from their abusers and fear of repercussions or being partly blamed for their own abuse can make it difficult for young people to seek help.

There is a risk that well-publicised criminal trials can lead to stereotyping of people who may be at risk of child exploitation and prevent the identification of victims. All children are at risk, and for some children there may be additional barriers to them disclosing abuse or seeking help, including young people who identify as LGBTQ+, boys and young men, children and young people with a disability or those from BME communities.

Practitioners should be aware of the key indicators of child sexual exploitation. More importantly, they should also remain open to the fact that child sexual exploitation can occur without any of the following risk indicators being obviously present:

  • Unexplained money or gifts;
  • Going missing (for short or long periods), or during the course of the school day;
  • Being distressed or withdrawn on return;
  • Disengaging from existing social networks;
  • Secrecy around new associations;
  • Additional mobile phones or concerning use of technology;
  • Sexual health problems/ unplanned pregnancies;
  • Disclosure of rape/sexual assault (and reluctance to report);
  • Changes in temperament/emotional wellbeing;
  • Drug or alcohol misuse;
  • Involvement in criminal activity;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Unexplained physical injuries.

These indicators are not exclusive to child sexual exploitation. Some may be explained by normal adolescent development and associated changes in behaviour; some might be explained by other types of abuse including that the child is being criminally exploited.

While the presence of a number of these indicators should prompt questions around the possibility of child exploitation, practitioners should remain open to the potential for other explanations and be curious about what is happening in the child's world. Children will often demonstrate their distress through external behaviours as a way of communicating to the outside world that something is wrong.

Some potential indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area;
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones;
  • Excessive receipt of texts / phone calls and/or having multiple handsets;
  • Relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups;
  • Leaving home / care without explanation;
  • Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries;
  • Parental concerns;
  • Carrying weapons;
  • Significant decline in school results / performance;
  • Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks;
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.

(Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance 2018).

Sometimes, distress may be displayed through aggressive, harmful or challenging behaviour in school or at home including, running away, misusing substances or displaying harmful sexual behaviour. Young people's offending behaviour should be understood in the context of wider issues and experiences, such as previous abuse or trauma, which may include experiences of being subject to child exploitation and/or exploiting other children.

Many children and young people are groomed into exploitative relationships. Some young people may be exploited through informal economies that involve the exchange of sex or criminal acts for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money, gifts or accommodation. Often young people are bullied, coerced and threatened into sexual/criminal activities by peers or gang members and this is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.

The College of Policing identifies a number of methods which are used by abusers to coerce a child:

  • Giving presents – especially during the grooming phase;
  • Offering food treats;
  • Giving rewards such as mobile phone top-ups / credit;
  • Giving the child or young person attention;
  • Offering false promises of love and/or affection;
  • Offering false promises of opportunities – e.g. modelling, photography, acting;
  • Supplying alcohol;
  • Drugs – either supplying drugs to facilitate exploitation, and/or young person being sexually exploited as a means of paying off drug debt;
  • Constructing situations whereby a young person must pay off debt;
  • Mental manipulation;
  • Blackmail;
  • Fear;
  • Physical violence.

Grooming is rarely a linear process, and the methods used by abusers will vary considerably both in the time they take to groom children and in the tactics they use in order facilitate the abuse. Some of these methods are also used in other forms of child exploitation.

Due to the nature of the grooming methods used by abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are exploited not to recognise that they are being abused.

A child cannot consent to their own abuse. It is important to bear in mind that:

  • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sex (it is statutory rape) or any other type of sexual touching;
  • Sexual activity with a child under 16 is an offence;
  • It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has extended the definition of Position of Trust within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 section 22A to include anyone who coaches, teaches, trains, supervises or instructs a child under 18, on a regular basis, in a sport or a religion. It is against the law for someone in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if that child is over the age of consent (16 or over);
  • Where sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old does not result in an offence being committed, it may still result in harm, or the likelihood of harm being suffered;
  • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim;
  • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or their family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore offences may have been committed;
  • Child sexual exploitation is therefore potentially a child protection issue for all children under the age of 18 years and not just those in a specific age group.

Practitioners must also consider other factors which might influence the ability of the person to give consent, e.g. learning disability / mental ill health.

Although they may sometimes appear to be making an informed choice, young people cannot and do not 'choose' abuse or exploitation. Recognising the underlying factors that can exacerbate risk will help practitioners understand and interpret apparent 'choices' and avoid the danger of apportioning blame.

5. Online Child Exploitation

Online child exploitation can be particularly challenging to identify and respond to. Technology allows perpetrators to be in contact with multiple potential victims at any one time. It also offers a perception of anonymity, for both children and young people and perpetrators, making it easier to say and do things online that they wouldn't do offline. This eases the grooming process and facilitates more rapid sexualisation of perpetrator approaches to potential victims.

Where exploitation does occur online (through the exchange of sexual communication or images, for example) these can be quickly and easily shared with others. This makes it difficult to contain the potential for further abuse and presents significant challenges around content removal. Online abuse is further complicated by the fact that it can transcend national borders.

See the Online Safety Procedure or contact CEOP for more information. Follow the Referral Procedure if you are concerned a child is at risk of harm.

With effect from 29 June 2021, section 69 Domestic Abuse Act 2021 expanded so-called 'revenge porn' to include threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress.

6. Child on Child Abuse

Working with exploited children is a complex issue which can involve serious crime and investigations over a wide geographical area.

Children may be frightened of the consequences of disclosure and may need to be given time to discuss their experiences.

The need to share information discreetly in a timely fashion has been shown to be vital in these cases.

Agencies and practitioners involved with a child or young person experiencing child exploitation must consider disruption strategies which support the child or young person to leave the situation they find themselves in.

The prosecution and disruption of perpetrators is an essential part of the process in reducing harm. It is the responsibility of the police to gather evidence, investigate and interview perpetrators and prepare case files for consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) with the intention of obtaining the successful conviction of offenders.

Many child exploitation cases cross police force boundaries and therefore there should be cross boundary cooperation and information sharing. This may involve the National Crime Agency's CEOP Command (formerly Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) who can support the police by helping to coordinate cross-boundary or international investigations involving child sex offender networks or in the management of high risk offenders which may involve grooming through chat rooms and social networking sites or involvement with paedophile rings.

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted) identified substantial levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse for both girls (90%) and boys (nearly 50%). Significantly, this did not always appear to be recognised by the school or college.

7. Children and Young People who go Missing

A significant number of children and young people who are being exploited may go missing from care, home, and education. Some go missing frequently; the more often children go missing the more vulnerable they are to being exploited.

If a child does go missing, the Children Missing from Care, Home and Education Procedure should be followed.

8. Protection and Action to be Taken

Whenever a practitioner has concerns that a child or young person is being exploited, or is at risk of exploitation, they should contact Children's Social Care and follow the Referrals Procedure.

Remember that early sharing of information is key to providing effective help for children and young people. Where possible, practitioners should share confidential personal information with Children's Social Care with consent. However, where there are concerns that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, practitioners should share information without consent where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of confidentiality.

Assessments should adopt a 'whole child' approach, not only looking at vulnerabilities and risk factors but also considering the wider needs, strengths and resources of the child or young person when planning support and services.

The most effective assessments will involve the young people concerned and all the practitioners working with them and incorporate risks and protective factors that also take into account their wider network in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods. Assessments need to be regularly updated as children's circumstances and the risks they face can change rapidly.

The young person's voice must be central to the assessment, and this should capture the lived experiences of the child, and take account of their context, their gender, ethnicity and culture.

Support put in place should aim to reduce the immediate risk of harm to children, as well as including longer term strategies to support their recovery and promote meaningful change. There is a difficult balance to strike between protecting the child from harm and supporting and empowering the child.

Working with exploited children is a complex issue, which can involve serious crime and investigations over a wide geographical area. It is important that agencies work together and cross-reference and share information effectively when there are emerging concerns. The prosecution and disruption of perpetrators is an essential part of the process to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from exploitation. Information gathering and sharing is essential in this process to understand local patterns in order to disrupt and deter perpetrators and to identify, help and protect children.

The Home Office has published a Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit which sets out many of the tools useful for police and other safeguarding professionals to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people and sets out best practice in information sharing and multi-agency working as well as intelligence and evidence gathering.

Effective early information sharing and intelligence gathering can:

  • Help build a coherent picture of risk sources and potential targets for abuse;
  • Identify and support a child's needs at the earliest opportunity; reducing the duration of harm and escalation to more serious abuse;
  • Help identify and understand the links between different forms of exploitation and hidden, or related, crimes;
  • Identify locations being used for the purposes of exploitation;
  • Identify networks or individuals who pose a risk to children;
  • Provide evidence in applications to the court for civil and criminal orders;
  • Enable quicker risk assessment of a potential victim of trafficking; and
  • Assist in the development of effective safety plans.

Raising awareness of child exploitation with the wider community including parents and carers as well as public services such as transport and recreation and the business community is important and helps in developing an understanding of the local risks and patterns of offending. Schools have a crucial role in prevention by educating young people to understand the risks especially when young people are involved in developing prevention and awareness resources.

9. Supporting Children and their Families

Help should be provided in a timely, flexible and ongoing manner. Children and their parents / carers should feel part of the solution and confident they will be believed. Practitioners need to be child focused and adopt a strengths-based, outcomes-focused approach when working with the family.

The Child

When specific concerns are identified about child exploitation, it is vital that children and young people receive the services they need, delivered in a way that recognises the complexity of their situation and maximises the likelihood of engagement.

The support / interventions needed will vary according to the individual child/young person, and could encompass preventative / resilience building work or recovery-based interventions.

Work with children and young people who are at risk of or have experienced child exploitation needs to be handled in a sensitive and understanding way.

Where possible children and young people should be involved in decisions about their care, protection and on-going support and be kept informed on any issues that affect them.

Some children and young people will not see themselves as victims, nor want support or intervention. If this is not approached with sensitivity and understanding of the victim's viewpoint, they may be further isolated from the help they need.

Building positive relationships and trust with victims is an essential part of helping to reduce the risk of harm and creating safe spaces for disclosure. Many victims are only able to disclose after the provision of support, months or even years down the line.

Support services should offer young people persistent, consistent and assertive support that reaches out to them. Young people need to know and experience the tenacity of someone who is genuinely concerned for them. This means continuing to try to engage them even if they turn support down or display negative behaviours to practitioners trying to support them.

If the child continues to have contact with the perpetrator, this should not be misinterpreted as an informed choice or an indication of absence of harm or rejection of support but recognised as part of the complex power dynamic of the abusive relationship, similar to that in some situations of domestic violence and abuse.

Services should be non-judgemental, and it is important to avoid language or actions that inadvertently contribute to children being ascribed responsibility or blame. Child exploitation is caused by abusers not by the behaviours of children. Abuse does not occur because of a child or young person's vulnerability or actions. It occurs because there is someone who is willing to take advantage of this vulnerability.

Support and services put in place need to be coordinated across all agencies, and it can be helpful to ask the child to identify a key professional who is known and trusted by them and who can be the main point of contact. All support plans must build upon the resources and strengths available to a young person including an understanding of the risks and protective factors in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods.

It is important to understand the impact of abuse and trauma on children and young people and the need to work at their pace. Children need to feel confident that they can be protected from harm and that there is a future for them beyond the abuse. There are no quick fixes. Avoid making assumptions about the child and their needs. They may not be ready yet to engage with therapeutic or educational interventions.

Where criminal proceedings are ongoing, special consideration needs to be given to managing the support required for a victim and their family before and during the court process. A victim care strategy should be developed to meet their needs.

Parents and Carers

In cases of child exploitation, the risk of harm to children is generally external or in the community. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress. Siblings can feel alienated and their self-esteem can be affected.

Family members (including siblings) can themselves suffer serious threats of abuse, intimidation and assault at the hands of perpetrators.

Where assessment shows it is safe and appropriate to do so, parents and families should be regarded as a part of the solution. As long as they are not a source of risk, parents and carers (and children and young people's wider support networks) offer a very important protective resource.

Parents and carers are usually the people who spend most time with their children, know them best, love them and are invested in their well-being.

Practitioners should adopt a strengths-based approach and seek to engage parents as safeguarding partners, empowering them about how to support and protect their child and working with them to enhance protective factors around the child or young person. This might include:

  • Helping parents to strengthen their relationships with their children, particularly in understanding teenage development and what makes their child vulnerable;
  • Helping parents to obtain a better understanding of child exploitation including the different forms abuse, the grooming process, online abuse etc.);
  • Helping parents to understand how their children may respond to trauma and the behaviours they display;
  • Being non-judgemental and respectful;
  • Giving parents and carers enough information to help them to protect their children;
  • Enabling and empowering parents (for example, let them know what type of information to record about suspects and how to share this with the police and Children's Social Care);
  • Consider whether there are any barriers to prevent parents accessing support;
  • Be mindful when organising the logistics of meetings and explain to them the processes and possible outcomes. This also applies to police investigations.

Further Information

Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017) - definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation.

Multi-agency Practice Principles for Responding to Child Exploitation and Extra-familial Harm

Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy (GOV.UK)

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Barnardo's - Child Sexual Exploitation - resources and research on Child Sexual Exploitation.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue.

Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation - Policing and Prevention has a number of resources that may be useful for professionals when working with children and young people, their families and communities including more in depth views of some particular themes and issues identifies in this chapter.

Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit – GOV.UK. The toolkit sets out many of the tools useful for police and other safeguarding professionals to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people and sets out best practice in information sharing and multi-agency working as well as intelligence and evidence gathering.

NSPCC Report Remove Tool - The tool enables young people under the age of 18 to report a nude image or video of themselves which has appeared online. The Internet Watch Foundation will review these reports and work to remove any content which breaks the law.

Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Centre (MSHTU)

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation – College of Policing

Child Sexual Abuse – The Children's Commissioner

PACE - PACE works alongside parent, carers of children who are - or at risk of being - sexually exploited by perpetrators external to the family.

Tackling Child Exploitation: Resources Pack (Local Government Association)

Bridging the Gap: Transitional Safeguarding and the Role of Social Work with Adults

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines (GOV.UK) - Guidance for frontline professionals on dealing with county lines, part of the government's approach to ending gang violence and exploitation.

Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery: an addendum November 2018

Serious Violence Duty - Preventing and Reducing Serious Violence: Statutory Guidance for Responsible Authorities