Posted: 23 November 2012

Seeing the signs of sexual exploitation

This week's report (press release, full text) from the children’s commissioner is a sobering reminder that sexual exploitation is a very real and widespread problem – thousands of children are exploited each year.

The report also makes the point that children are extremely vulnerable when they run away from home or care. One in four of such children will end up in a harmful or dangerous situation.

We know this, too, from our services across the country that work directly with hundreds of children who have run away and are at risk of being sexually exploited. From our work with these young people and our years of campaigning on their behalf, we have also found a direct link between a young person going missing and being sexually exploited.

Not only does the commissioner’s report recognise that running away is a key indicator that a child is at risk, it also makes the case that much more needs to be done to keep these children safe.

'If she won’t stay in, then that’s what will happen to her'

The report points out that there is a huge difference in the recorded number of victims depending on the area of the country. But we should not conclude that this means sexual exploitation is confined to certain areas. 

The report argues that the differences are down to local agencies in these areas proactively and persistently looking for children at risk of sexual exploitation, and uncovering what is already there. We agree but the ability of professionals to understand signs of abuse and sexual exploitation, such as running away, also contributes to the difference. 

Worryingly, some professionals routinely miss these signs. All too often, these children who go missing find that the very professionals who are meant to protect them – social services, care home staff and the police – treat running away as an inconvenience.

Child victims of sexual exploitation often tell us of the appalling attitudes that they encounter from some professionals. When these children share their horrific experiences with some professionals, they are met with disbelief, or even worse, they treat the children as 'troublesome' or 'promiscuous'. 'If she won’t stay in, then that’s what will happen to her' are words we have heard all too often from care home workers. 

This attitude – particularly towards teenage girls – is a real problem. 

This is happening

Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of attention in the media of historic cases of horrific sexual abuse, such as the Jimmy Savile controversy. 

But along with recent cases such as those in Rochdale and Rotherham, this report demonstrates that horrific abuse and exploitation can not be blamed on cultural attitudes of previous decades. It is happening now.

We all have a duty to care for these children. To stop vulnerable children becoming victims we all – police, social services, government, charities – must come together and play our part. 

By Ellen Broome, Acting Policy Director

Read more and get involved

  • Use our map to see whether your local authority has signed up to our Runaways Charter
  • Read about the All-Party Parliamentary Group into young people who run away from care
  • Read our chief executive's statement on the children's commissioner's report


By Ellen Broome - Policy team

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.