Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation
In November 2017, this chapter was extensively revised and updated and should be re-read in full.
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.
This extract from The Office of the Commissioner for Children (OCC) Inquiry into CSE in Gangs and Groups (Nov 2012) helps to consider issues around consent.
"The law not only sets down 16 as the age of consent, it also applies to whether a person has given their consent to sexual activity, or was able to give their consent, or whether sexual violence and rape in particular took place. In the context of child sexual exploitation, the term 'consent' refers to whether or not a child understands how one gives consent, withdraws consent and what situations (such as intoxication, duress, violence) can compromise the child or young person's ability to consent freely to sexual activity."
Practitioners must also consider other factors which might influence the ability of the person to give consent, e.g. learning disability / mental ill health. Young people under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to sexual activity. Sexual intercourse with children under the age of 13 is statutory rape. A child under 18 cannot consent to their own abuse through exploitation.
Anyone who has regular contact with children is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs that may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation.
Parents carers and anyone in a position of responsibility with a child should also know how to monitor online activity and be prepared to - monitor computer usage where they are suspicious that a child is being groomed online.
The fact that a young person is 16 or 17 years old should not be taken as a sign they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation.
Young people with a disability may have increased vulnerability as well as young people up to the age of 21 who were looked after for whom the local authority has statutory care leaver responsibility and / or where there may be child in need and/or child protection issues.
Barnardo's 'Puppet on a String' report 2011 sets out three different models of activity in the spectrum of sexual exploitation:
Usually involving one perpetrator who has inappropriate power or control over a young person (physical emotional or financial). One indicator may be a significant age gap. The young person may believe they are in a loving relationship.
'Boyfriend' model of exploitation and peer exploitation
The perpetrator befriends and grooms a young person into a 'relationship' and then coerces or forces them to have sex with friends or associates.
Peer exploitation is where young people are forced or coerced into sexual activity by peers and associates. Sometimes this can be associated with gang activity, but not always.
Organised / networked sexual exploitation or trafficking
Young people (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced / coerced into sexual activity with multiple men. Often this occurs in 'sex parties', and young people who are involved may be used as agents to recruit others into the network. Some of this activity is described as serious organised crime and can involve the organised 'buying and selling' of young people by perpetrators.
Practitioners should receive training on child sexual exploitation, and therefore be aware of the key indicators of child sexual exploitation. This list is not exhaustive, but they include:
- Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault);
- Chronic fatigue;
- Recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections;
- Pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion;
- Evidence of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse;
- Sexually risky behaviour.
- Truancy/disengagement with education or considerable change in performance at school.
Emotional and Behavioural Issues
- Volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language;
- Involvement in petty crime such as shoplifting, stealing;
- Secretive behaviour;
- Entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
- Reports of being seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation, including public toilets known for cottaging or adult venues (pubs and clubs).
- Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behaviour, e.g. cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity.
- Hostility in relationships with staff, family members as appropriate and significant others;
- Physical aggression;
- Placement breakdown;
- Reports from reliable sources (e.g. family, friends or other professionals) suggesting the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation;
- Detachment from age-appropriate activities;
- Associating with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited;
- Known to be sexually active;
- Sexual relationship with a significantly older person, or younger person who is suspected of being abusive;
- Unexplained relationships with older adults;
- Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults, via the Internet;
- Phone calls, text messages or letters from unknown adults;
- Adults or older youths loitering outside the home;
- Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation;
- Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for in spite of having no known home base;
- Missing for long periods, with no known home base;
- Going missing and being found in areas where they have no known links.
Please note: Whilst the focus is often on older men as perpetrators, younger men and women may also be involved and practitioners should be aware of this possibility.
- Change in appearance;
- Going out dressed in clothing unusual for them (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people).
Family and Environmental Factors
- History of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parental difficulties.
- Pattern of previous street homelessness;
- Having keys to premises other than those known about.
- Possession of large amounts of money with no plausible explanation;
- Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phones or other possessions without plausible explanation;
- Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding.
Other Areas to Consider
Practitioners should be aware that many children and young people who are sexually exploited do not see themselves as victims. In such situations, discussions with them about concerns should be handled with great sensitivity. Seeking prior advice from specialist agencies may be useful. This should not involve disclosing personal, identifiable information at this stage.
In assessing whether a child or young person is a victim of sexual exploitation, or at risk, careful consideration should be given to the issue of consent. 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 also 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;
- 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; and
- If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or his or her 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.
The child sexual exploitation training which practitioners 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.
4. Children and Young People who go Missing
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 Havering Missing From Home, Care or Education Protocol (Internal Guides) should be followed.
Independent 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 for Referral and Assessment of any child sexual exploitation cases.
5. Protection and Action to be Taken
Where the concerns about the welfare and safety of the child or young person are such that a referral to Children's Social Care should be made the Referral for a Viability/Full Assessment of a Connected Person (Family and Friends Carer) Procedure (Internal Guides) must be followed.
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.
Children's Social Care will hold a Strategy Discussion with the Police, the referring agency and other relevant agencies. If the child is receiving hospital treatment and/or a medical examination is required the medical consultant must be involved.
If concerns about child sexual exploitation remain after a referral to Children's Social Care has taken place, a Strategy Meeting should be held. This is a multi-agency meeting which 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 likely outcome is that a Section 47 Enquiry will be undertaken in parallel with the Assessment already started.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.
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.
The child sexual exploitation lead within Children's Social Care must be informed of the outcome of the Section 47 Enquiry and the Assessment.
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.
A decision to place a child or young person in secure accommodation should only be considered in extreme circumstances, when they are at grave risk of Significant Harm. In cases where the child is under the age of 13, the approval of the Secretary of State must be sought.
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. 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 sexual 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.
7. Supporting Children and Young People out of Child Sexual Exploitation
Practitioners 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 nearest specialist service, 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.
For children who are Looked After issues raised and actions planned should be incorporated into the child's Care Plan and Placement Plan, and reviewed as part of the Looked After Child 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. For young people who are Looked After, this should be incorporated into their 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.
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.
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 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.
10. 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.
Child Abuse Concerns: Guidance 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.
Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: Progress Report - gives an update on action the government is taking to deal with child sexual exploitation.
Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: A Resource Pack for Councils - includes case studies.