Posted: 17 March 2020

Children are not the problem: different forms of child exploitation

Wednesday 18 March is National Child Exploitation Awareness Day, which encourages us all to spot and speak out against abuse. Here, Lucy from our Disrupting Exploitation programme dispels the myths around exploitation and explains how we can tackle the problem.

Every year thousands of children are the victims of modern day slavery.  These children may have been forced to cross international borders, been groomed into ‘county lines’ drug trafficking or faced exploitation in their own communities. 

Child exploitation comes in many forms and for decades we have supported children through our one-to-one work with young people, and through our policy and influencing work.

Protection not prosecution

Child prostitutes exploitation

Twenty years ago we published our first ground-breaking report on child sexual exploitation in Britain. Back then, children who were sexually exploited were prosecuted as child prostitutes rather than safeguarded and protected.

We called for legislation to recognise that children who are sexually abused and exploited need protection not prosecution – that these children were coerced, manipulated and groomed into exploitative situations.

Thankfully, over the last twenty years big progress had been made in how professionals and wider society understand and respond to child sexual exploitation.

New forms of exploitation

Yet in recent years, new forms of exploitation have been uncovered and we need to learn the same lessons as we had to with child sexual exploitation, in order to stop treating children as criminals and give them the help they need.

Too often we see children who are victims of international trafficking, labour exploitation and child criminal exploitation labelled and seen as ‘criminals’.

Victims not criminals

The police just conducted a week of national action to disrupt ‘county lines’ drug trafficking, and this form of child criminal exploitation has been called ‘one of the greatest threats of our time’ by police chiefs.

'one of the greatest threats of the time'

In 2017 a record number of children were referred to the National Referral Mechanism to be recognised as child victims of trafficking, a 66% rise on 2016 numbers – with the greatest rise in labour exploitation including 'county lines'.

Dangers of branding

As professionals we are constantly challenging the language we hear about these young people. Language has power, and how young people are described can determine how services respond to them.

If a child is branded a ‘criminal’, then a route of prosecution and criminalisation may follow, however if the same child is recognised as a victim, then a safeguarding and vulnerability response kicks into action.

New forms, same methods

Cases from our practice show that similar methods of grooming, coercion and threats are used by adults criminally exploiting children as those used in sexual exploitation.

These are children who often face multiple vulnerabilities, they are often living in poverty or destitution, face exclusion from mainstream school, and may already be known to children’s services as a child in care, or in need of additional support.

Learning from best practice - we cannot wait another 20 years

Disrupting all types of child exploitation requires a multi-agency response.

Professionals from a range of agencies need to come together to safeguard children at risk, disrupt networks of child exploitation through joint intelligence sharing and offer positive activities for young people to get involved in.

Disrupting exploitation

Through our frontline work we have been supporting victims of child exploitation for decades. Recently we launched a new national Disrupting Exploitation Programme that works across Manchester, Birmingham and London to support young people who are victims of child exploitation, with a focus on child criminal exploitation.

This work will support young people on a one-to-one basis but also work on changing the systems and contexts that put children at risk of exploitation. Changing attitudes and training professionals will be at the heart of the programme, as societal and professional attitudes to child criminally exploited needs to change, in the same way as they have changed in relation to children who are sexually exploitation.

Children are not the problem

We should stop seeing these children as the problem, and we will work to ensure no child who is exploited – whether through international trafficking, labour, criminal or sexual exploitation - is blamed for the abuse they experience.


By Lucy Dacey - Programme staff

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