Posted: 04 August 2017

The different forms of child exploitation

Twenty years ago we published our first ground-breaking report on child sexual exploitation in Britain. Our subsequent ‘Game’s up’ campaign (which ran from 1995-1997) advocated that children who are sexually exploited by adults are not making a choice.

We called for legislation to recognise that children who are sexually abused and exploited need protection not prosecution - that these children were coerced, manipulated, forced and groomed into exploitative situations, and instead of being punished should be supported to recover.

Then and now

In the last 20 years big progress has been made in how professionals, and wider society, understand and respond to child sexual exploitation.

Children are less frequently blamed for the abuse that is happening to them. Children’s services, police and voluntary sector organisations are working hard to protect them.

Children are often still seen and treated as criminals

Although a lot still needs to be done to eradicate child sexual exploitation, there is now a shared understanding that it is a crime against young people and not in their control.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about other forms of exploitation. Cases emerging from our practice show that similar methods of grooming, coercion and threats are used by adults to make children run drugs, or work in cannabis farms. Little support however is available for children to escape these horrific situations or prevent adults grooming children for involvement in crime. Instead, children are often still seen and treated as criminals.

Uncovering threats

Earlier this month the All Party Parliamentary group on young runaways,and missing children and adults, published a briefing that looked in to missing children who get involved in criminal activity or get exploited by gangs to sell drugs. This briefing is the outcome of a roundtable which brought together experts on the issue as well as parents of children targeted by gangs and a young person supported by one of our projects.

The roundtable heard that children as young as eight are groomed by gangs for involvement in crime. Although the true scale of the issue is not known, in a 2016 National Crime Agency Briefing Report, 80% of areas asked reported exploitation of children by gangs. Professionals however, are often not aware of risks and signs of criminal exploitation. Moreover, children are labelled as criminals and little or no help is available to help them escape the exploitative situations they experience.

What can be done to prevent exploitation?

There are a number of things that can be done to prevent and disrupt situations where children are groomed by gangs running drugs. One issue raised by the young person at the round table, was that children need to be educated about the risks of being groomed for criminal exploitation to prevent them falling into dangerous situations and enable them raise concerns with adults if their friends and peers are at risk.

Education on its own is not enough. Earlier help should be available for children who go missing – from police using disruption tools to prevent contact between a child and those who have groomed them for crime, to return home interviews to enable missing children to talk about their experiences.

We cannot wait another 20 years

Most importantly though, societal and professionals’ attitudes to these children need to change, in the same way they have changed in relation to children who are sexually exploited.

We should stop seeing these children as the problem and start seeing them as victims of exploitation.

We will continue to raise awareness of child exploitation, and work to ensure that no child who is exploited, whether through sexual abuse or through criminal gangs, is blamed for the abuse they experience.


By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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