Child Sexual Exploitation
AMENDMENTThis chapter was updated in September 2020.
The sexual exploitation of children is defined as:
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. 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.
See also Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE 2017). This advice is non-statutory, and has been produced to help practitioners to identify child sexual exploitation and take appropriate action in response. This advice includes the management, disruption and prosecution of perpetrators.
Any child or young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances.
Sexual exploitation results in children and young people suffering harm, and causes significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for the child's family. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress. Siblings can feel alienated and their self-esteem can be affected. Family members can themselves suffer serious threats of abuse, intimidation and assault at the hands of perpetrators.
There are strong links between children involved in sexual exploitation and other behaviours such as running away from home or care, bullying, self-harm, teenage pregnancy, truancy and substance misuse. In addition, some children are particularly vulnerable, for example, children with special needs, those in residential or foster care, those leaving care, migrant children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, victims of forced marriage and those involved in gangs.
There is also often a presumption that children are sexually exploited by people they do not know. However evidence shows that this is often not the case and children are often sexually exploited by people with whom they feel they have a relationship, e.g. a boyfriend/girlfriend. Children are often persuaded that the boyfriend/girlfriend is their only true form of support and encouraged to withdraw from their friends and family and to place their trust only within the relationship.
Many children and young people are groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some young people are engaged in informal economies that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty. Some young people have been bullied, coerced and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gang members, which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.
Due to the nature of the grooming methods used by their abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are sexually exploited not to recognise that they are being abused. Practitioners should be aware that particularly young people aged 16 and 17 may believe themselves to be acting voluntarily and will need practitioners to work with them so they can recognise that they are being sexually exploited. This is not an issue, which affects only girls and young women, but boys and young men are also exploited. However, they often may experience other barriers to disclosure.
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It can take many forms from the seemingly 'consensual' relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. (Human trafficking is the movement of a person from one place to another into conditions of exploitation, using deception, coercion, the abuse of power or the abuse of someone's vulnerability).
What marks out exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.
Technology such as mobile phones or social networking sites can play a part in sexual exploitation, for example, through their use to record abuse and share it with other like-minded individuals or as a medium to access children and young people in order to groom them.
Sexual exploitation has strong links with other forms of crime, for example, domestic violence and abuse, online and offline grooming, the distribution of abusive images of children and child trafficking.
The perpetrators of sexual exploitation are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They are known to target areas where children and young people gather without much adult supervision, e.g. parks, takeaway outlets or shopping centres or sites on the Internet.
Children and young people may have already been sexually exploited before they are referred to Children's Social Care; others may become targets of perpetrators whilst living at home or during placements. They are often the focus of perpetrators of sexual abuse due to their vulnerability. All practitioners 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, or with someone from a specialist child sexual exploitation project, and also feel able to share any such concerns about their friends.
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; the more often they go missing the more vulnerable they are to being sexually exploited. If a child does go missing, the Swindon Safeguarding Children Board Procedures Manual, Children Missing from Care, Home and Education Procedure and Children and Families that go Missing (Including Unborn Children) Procedure should be followed.
See Appendix 3: Missing Children Flowchart for process.
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.
4. Protection and Action to be Taken
Working Together to Safeguard Children requires that following a referral Children's Social Care should ensure that the needs of all children and young people who are being, or who are at risk of being, sexually exploited are assessed and that appropriate multi-agency engagement and interventions are undertaken. The duties under the Children Act 1989 apply to all children under the age of 18 years. Children's Social Care should also be alert to the possibility of sexual exploitation of children who are already in receipt of services.
If concerns about child sexual exploitation remain after a referral to Children's Social Care has taken place, a Strategy Meeting should be considered. If a decision is made by a manager not to hold a strategy discussion the rationale and plan should be clearly set out by the manager.
A Strategy discussion will enable information to be shared and plans to be made. This Strategy Meeting should be chaired by a manager from Children's Social Care.The outcome of the Section 47 Enquiry must be recorded and concluded under one of the following categories:
- Concerns are substantiated and the child is judged to have suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm;
Where the agencies most involved judge that a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, Children's Social Care must convene an Initial Child Protection Conference (see Quorate Child Protection Conferences Procedure).
If the child is already subject to a Child Protection Plan, discussions must take place about any further protective steps needed to ensure the safety of the child. The Independent Chair of the Child Protection Conference must be consulted and may arrange to convene a Review Conference;
- Concerns are not substantiated;
Although Section 47 enquires and the Assessment may have identified that the child has not suffered or is not likely to suffer significant harm, the child may still have additional needs that warrant coordinated professional intervention. In such cases, support should be provided via a Child in Need Plan or via the Common Assessment Framework. Where no additional needs are identified, no further intervention will be required.
Where immediate action to safeguard a child is required, it may involve removing the child from the home of a person who is exploiting them to a safe place. However, those working with children in these circumstances must never underestimate the power of perpetrators to find where the child is.
Such children will need placements with carers who have experience of building trusting relationships and skills at containing young people.
Children who are looked after by the Local Authority can be more vulnerable to exploitation. Substitute carers must be able to recognise the possible indicators of child sexual exploitation. Looked after children are subject to the same child protection procedures as those who live with their own families. However their needs may be different and for this reason their Independent Reviewing Officer must be kept informed of any concerns relating to child sexual exploitation or any other form of suspected abuse. The child / young person's Care Plan must include a strategy to keep them safe and it must be updated and reviewed regularly.
Working with sexually 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 sexual 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.
Child sexual exploitation cases can 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.
6. 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.
Practitioners 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 and Abuse;
- 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.
7. Supporting Children and Young People through Related Legal Proceedings
Where alleged perpetrators are arrested and charged with offences against children or young people, allocated practitioners 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.
8. 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.
What to do if You're Worried a Child is being Abused: Advice for Practitioners - guidance to help practitioners identify the signs of child abuse and neglect and understand what action to take.
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.