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1.5.6 Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation


'Child sexual exploitation is a form of child abuse. It occurs where anyone under the age of 18 is persuaded, coerced or forced into sexual activity in exchange for, amongst other things, money, drugs/alcohol, gifts, affection or status. Consent is irrelevant, even where a child may believe they are voluntarily engaging in sexual activity with the person who is exploiting them. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact and may occur online’.


This chapter was revised in August 2016 to include more information on identifying risk factors.


  1. Introduction
  2. Signs and Indicators
  3. Push and Pull Factors
  4. Sex Offences and Underage Sexual Activity
  5. Children and Young People who go Missing
  6. Referring Cases of Concern
  7. Supporting Children and Young People out of Child Sexual Exploitation
  8. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators
  9. Supporting Children and Young People through Related Legal Proceedings

1. Introduction

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is an issue that affects girls and boys from all parts of the community. Its form of Child Sexual Abuse and has a major long standing impact on the lives of children and the families.

Any child may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. However, some groups are particularly vulnerable. These include children who have a history of running away or of going missing from home, those with special needs, those in and leaving residential and foster care, migrant children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, children who have disengaged from education and children who are using drugs and alcohol, and those involved in gangs.

Child sexual exploitation takes different forms - from a seemingly ‘consensual’ relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, affection, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. Child sexual exploitation involves differing degrees of abusive activities, including coercion, intimidation or enticement, unwanted pressure from peers to have sex, sexual bullying (including cyber bullying), and grooming for sexual activity. There is increasing concern about the role of technology in sexual abuse, including via social networking and other internet sites and mobile phones. The key issue in relation to child sexual exploitation is the imbalance of power within the ‘relationship’. The perpetrator always has power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse often target children who are vulnerable. All staff and foster carers should therefore create an environment which educates children and young people about child sexual exploitation, involving relevant outside agencies where appropriate. They should encourage them to discuss any such concerns with them, another member of staff, or with someone from a specialist child sexual exploitation project, and also feel able to share any such concerns about their friends.

2. Signs and Indicators

The following list of indicators is not exhaustive or definitive but it does highlight common signs which can assist professionals in identifying children who may be victims of sexual exploitation.

Signs include*:

  • Underage sexual activity;
  • Inappropriate sexual or sexualised behaviour;
  • Sexually risky behaviour, 'swapping' sex;
  • Repeat sexually transmitted infections in girls, repeat pregnancy, abortions, miscarriage;
  • Receiving unexplained gifts or gifts from unknown sources;
  • Having multiple mobile phones and worrying about losing contact via mobile;
  • Having unaffordable new things (clothes, mobile) or expensive habits (alcohol, drugs);
  • Changes in the way they dress;
  • Going to hotels or other unusual locations to meet friends;
  • Seen at known places of concern;
  • Moving around the country, appearing in new towns or cities, not knowing where they are;
  • Getting in/out of different cars driven by unknown adults;
  • Having older boyfriends or girlfriends;
  • Contact with known perpetrators;
  • Involved in abusive relationships, intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations;
  • Hanging out with groups of older people, or anti-social groups, or with other vulnerable peers;
  • Associating with other children involved in sexual exploitation;
  • Recruiting other children to exploitative situations;
  • Truancy, exclusion, disengagement with school, opting out of education altogether;
  • Unexplained changes in behaviour or personality (chaotic, aggressive, sexual) mood swings, volatile behaviour, emotional distress;
  • Self-harming, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, overdosing, eating disorders;
  • Drug or alcohol misuse;
  • Police involvement, Police records;
  • Involved in gangs, gang fights, gang membership;
  • Injuries from physical assault, physical restraint, sexual assault.

*These signs have been drawn from a range of research (Barnardo’s, 2011; CEOP, 2011; Berelowitz et al, 2012) and from the NSPCC.

3. Push and Pull Factors

There are a number of factors that may make a child more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse due to their individual family or personal circumstances- these are called push and pull factors - that may either push or pull a child into situations where they are vulnerable to or at risk of being sexually exploited. Abusive adults will look out for signs of these push factors in selecting a child to target.


These include:

  • Children who have been the victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse;
  • Children from households where domestic violence and abuse has been a feature;
  • Children of parents with a high level of vulnerabilities (e.g. drug and/or alcohol abuse, mental illness, learning disability, their own history of an abusive childhood);
  • Family breakdown / disrupted family life / problematic parenting;
  • Insecure immigration status;
  • Children who have physical or learning impairments;
  • Children with emotional difficulties; low self-esteem; estranged family relationships.

Abusers will spend time getting to know their victims and look for indicators of vulnerability even via social networking sites, through chat lines etc. There are also indicators that a child is at risk of or particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse:

  • Going missing – the most immediate indicator of vulnerability to sexual exploitation;
  • Disengagement from education;
  • Drug and/or alcohol dependency;
  • Physical symptoms e.g. sexually transmitted infections, miscarriage, abortion, bruising or marks indicating physical or sexual assault;
  • Children who have not received appropriate levels of attention from concerned adults;
  • Associating with older men or other ‘risky’ adults;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of the money to fund these activities;
  • New possessions, acquisition of money, expensive clothes, drugs or other possessions without plausible explanation about their source;
  • Being alienated from family or community;
  • Being in care and having placement breakdown;
  • Associating with other children who are known to be victims of exploitation;
  • Some kinds of offending behaviour.


The grooming techniques used to gain the child’s attention, admiration and affection often taps into insecurities or a desire for acceptance and status by the child. These can be referred to as ‘PULL’ factors and include:

  • Being liked by someone older;
  • Being liked/fancied enough that a stranger asks for their mobile number;
  • Meeting someone who thinks they are special on the internet;
  • Receiving alcohol, drugs, money or gifts;
  • Getting a buzz and the excitement of risk taking/forbidden behaviour;
  • Being offered somewhere to stay where there are no rules/boundaries;
  • Being taken along to adult entertainment venues, red light or gay cruising areas (public sex environments);
  • Being given lifts, taken to new places, and having adventures with a casual acquaintances.

Staff and foster carers should be aware that many children who are sexually exploited do not see themselves as victims. In such situations, discussions with them about concerns should be handled with great sensitivity. 

If you require further advice-consultation can be accessed from Opal Team.

In assessing whether a child or young person is being sexually exploited, or at risk, the CSE Screening tool should be completed.

4. Sex Offences and Underage Sexual Activity


For the purpose of this guidance the key age groups identified are:

  • Children under 13;
  • Children aged 13-15 years old;
  • Children over the age of consent (16) and up to the age of 18.

Children over the age of consent and up to 18 years may still suffer sexual harm through exploitation by predatory adults or through a sexual partner who is abusing a Position of Trust.

Any Child between the age of 16 and 18 who is engaging in sexual activity with a person in a position of trust (i.e. teacher, foster carer or similar) is being sexually exploited and such cases must be referred to the Local Authority Designated Officer.

Sexual Offences

Under 13's

A child under 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sexual activity. Any offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 involving a child under 13 is very serious and should be taken to indicate that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

Cases involving children aged under 13 should always be discussed with a nominated child protection lead in the organisation. Under the Sexual Offences Act, penetrative sex with a child under 13 is classed as rape. Where the allegation concerns penetrative sex, or other intimate sexual activity occurs, there would always be reasonable cause to suspect that a child, whether a girl or boy, is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. There should be a presumption that the case will be reported to Children's Social Care. A strategy discussion should be held that will involve Children's Social Care, Police and relevant agencies, to discuss appropriate next steps with the professional. All cases involving under 13s should be fully documented including detailed reasons where a decision is taken not to share information. These decisions are exceptional and only made with the documented approval of a senior manager.

13-15 year olds

Sexual activity with a child under 16 is also an offence. Where it is consensual it may be less serious than if the child were under 13 years, but may nevertheless, have serious consequences for the welfare of the child. Consideration should be given in every case of sexual activity involving a child aged 13-15 as to whether there should be a discussion with other agencies and whether a referral should be made to Children's Social Care. This should always be the case where there is a considerable age difference (i.e. 13 + 17; 15 + 21).

The professional should make this assessment using the assessment criteria below. Within this age range, the younger the child, the stronger the presumption must be that sexual activity will be a matter of concern. However, concerns of a similar extent are warranted for older children who are known to have had sexual activity with significantly older adults (i.e. 17 + 33). Cases of concern should be discussed with the nominated child protection lead and/or the professionals line manager and subsequently with other agencies if required. Where confidentiality needs to be preserved, a discussion can still take place as long as it does not identify the child (directly or indirectly).

Where there is reasonable cause to suspect that significant harm to a child has occurred or might occur, there should be a presumption that the case is reported to Children's Social Care and a Strategy Discussion should be held to discuss appropriate next steps. Again, all cases should be carefully documented including where a decision is taken not to share information.

The child sexual exploitation training staff and foster carers receive should also include what information should be given to the police in such cases, for example vehicle registration numbers, names, physical descriptions. It may also include what action staff should take in the case of suspected sexual or physical abuse in order to protect potential evidence, which may be useful in the case of an alleged perpetrator being prosecuted.

5. Children and Young People who go Missing

See Joint Pan Wiltshire Protocol: Children Missing from Home and Care.

A significant number of children and young people who are being sexually exploited may go missing from home or care, and education. Some go missing frequently. If a child does go missing, the Children Missing from Home or Care Procedure should be followed.

Return interviews with the child or young person can help in establishing why they went missing and the subsequent support that may be required, as well as preventing repeat incidents. Information gathered from return interviews can be used to inform the identification, referral and assessment of any child sexual exploitation cases. Please see flowchart attached.

6. Referring Cases of Concern

See Initial Contacts and Referrals Procedure

See Swindon Multi-Agency Risk Panel Operating Protocol.

Where a member of staff or foster carer is concerned that a child or young person is involved in, or at risk of, sexual exploitation, they should contact the allocated social worker, or in their absence the social work team manager at the earliest opportunity. If neither can be contacted or no response is received, they should contact the Duty Manager. Staff or foster carers should also contact the police, if they are concerned a crime has been, or may be, committed.

If, following assessment, the social worker and their manager decide action needs to be taken to protect the child, local safeguarding procedures will be triggered. This may include notifying the police regarding possible criminal offences.

Foster carers should also contact their supervising social worker / fostering agency at the earliest opportunity, or for advice if they first want to discuss their concerns.

7. Supporting Children and Young People out of Child Sexual Exploitation

Staff from statutory agencies and voluntary sector organisations together with the child or young person, foster carers, and his / her family as appropriate, should agree on the services which should be provided to them and how they will be coordinated. The types of intervention offered should be appropriate to their needs and should take full account of identified risk factors and their individual circumstances. This may include, for example, previous abuse, missing incidents, involvement in gangs and groups and/or child trafficking. Health services provided may include sexual health services and mental health services. Advice should be sought from the Opal Team which works with children and young people involved in child sexual exploitation. A referral should be made as appropriate, if the child or young person is in agreement.

Issues raised and action planned should be incorporated into the child’s Care Plan and Placement Plan, and reviewed as part of the Child Looked After Review.

Because the effects of child sexual exploitation can last well into adulthood, support may be required over a long period of time. In such circumstances, effective links should be made between children and adult services and statutory and voluntary organisations. This should be incorporated into the child or young person’s Pathway Plan

8. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators

The police and criminal justice agencies lead on the identification and prosecution of perpetrators. All practitioners, however, have a role in gathering, recording and sharing information with the police and other agencies, as appropriate and in agreement with them.

Staff and foster carers should bear in mind that sexual exploitation often does not occur in isolation and has links to other crime types, including:

  • Child trafficking (into, out of and within the UK);
  • Domestic violence;
  • Sexual violence in intimate relationships;
  • Grooming (both online and offline);
  • Abusive images of children and their distribution (organised abuse);
  • Organised sexual abuse of children;
  • Drugs-related offences (dealing, consuming and cultivating);
  • Gang-related activity;
  • Immigration-related offences;
  • Domestic servitude.

9. Supporting Children and Young People through Related Legal Proceedings

Where alleged perpetrators are arrested and charged with offences against children or young people, allocated staff and foster carers should ensure they are supported throughout the prosecution process and beyond. Specialist agencies should be involved in supporting the child or young person, as required. This may include using special measures to protect them when giving evidence in court for example. Independent Sexual Violence Advisers or specialist voluntary sector services, if available, may also have an important role to play.