Posted: 04 March 2015

What we can do to stop child sexual exploitation

The 'industrial scale' sexual exploitation of children in England is in the news again. A review into serious failings in Oxfordshire found that at least 373 children were sexually abused and let down by the professionals there to protect them.

The story of what happened in Oxfordshire is sadly familiar. The Serious Case Review found that professionals simply failed to recognise child sexual exploitation. They demonstrated an ignorance of issues like grooming, control and consent.

Child victims – who bravely agreed to talk about their horrific experiences – told the review that professionals dismissed or didn’t believe them.

16,500 children are at risk of child sexual exploitation

There are an estimated 16,500 children are at risk of child sexual exploitation in England. As cities, towns and counties increasingly uncover abuse they will attract scrutiny (and rightly so).

But it is even more important that we put pressure on those areas that say they don’t have a problem. The figures tell us that, in all likelihood, they’re just not looking hard enough.

The Government this week set out steps it would take to tackle child sexual exploitation, including a helpline for professionals to report bad practice, making child sexual abuse a national policing priority and a law to criminalise those who wilfully neglect children.

But we know from our direct work with children at risk of sexual exploitation - in places like Manchester, Newcastle, London, Lancashire and elsewhere – that much more needs to be done nationally and locally.

Make child sexual exploitation an offence

The Oxfordshire review found that professionals failed to recognise child sexual exploitation because of gaps in their knowledge and misunderstanding of consent. But there are also gaps in the law; child exploitation isn’t actually an offence in legislation.

At the moment, police and prosecutors largely rely on offences in the Sexual Offences Act. But as the review pointed out, professionals were confused about the law and what counted as sexual exploitation and consent.

We have lobbied for a specific offence of child exploitation. This would help professionals recognise the vulnerability of children, make clear that no child can consent to exploitation and make convictions easier.

Stronger powers to disrupt grooming

The police in Oxfordshire relied too much on formal disclosures from traumatised child victims when they should have used intelligence to disrupt abuse. This must change, but the police need the right tools.

The police can use Child Abduction Warning Notices (CAWNs) to disrupt contact between a vulnerable child and a harmful adult. But an adult breaching a CAWN isn’t actually a crime.

We lobbied for CAWNs to be put on a statutory footing, so police can arrest and charge those that break them. We also want them extended to cover 16- and 17-year-old children, who miss out on protection from this vital tool.

Protect older children from abuse and neglect

In Oxford, teenagers and older children were seen as less vulnerable, when in fact we know that 16- and 17-year-olds are most likely to suffer child abuse and neglect.

The law is inconsistent and outdated: the Children Act 1989 defines a child as anyone under 18. But the criminal law on abuse and neglect is based on the Children and Young Person Act 1933. This 72-year-old act fails to recognise 16- and 17-year-olds as potential victims. We have consistently called for the law to be extended to protect all children.

Keeping missing children safe

Many children go missing because they are being groomed and they are vulnerable to exploitation while on the streets, as was the case in Oxfordshire. 

We have called on councils to offer every single child runaway an independent return interview. This conversation with an independent professional (often a Children’s Society project worker) gives children a chance to talk about why they ran away, can help identify children at risk and help disrupt sexual abuse early.  

And we’ve also called for a national register of missing children. At the moment, every police force in England holds separate records of runaways, meaning children that run away from one area to another are in danger of slipping through the net.

The figures tell us that local authorities likely aren’t looking hard enough for CSE

Improve support for children in care

We provide advocates and ‘independent visitors’ to children in care across the country. We know that children in care are particularly vulnerable to exploitation – and that perpetrators deliberately target looked after children - particularly the third of children who are placed in homes many miles aware from their local area.

We have called for tighter rules around out of area placements. Councils need to work together to ensure that that children can be properly supported, not just abandoned in a distant care home. 

Challenge negative attitudes

All of our projects work in partnership with other local agencies like the police, councils and schools. This means we can better share information about young people to build a fuller picture of exploitation as early as possible.

Many of our projects provide training to professionals that work with children so they can recognise the signs of sexual exploitation.

Working together also makes it easier to challenge negative attitudes to vulnerable children. By continuing to do this and strengthening the law to more fully protect children, we can make huge strides in stopping child sexual exploitation

By Euan Holloway - Policy team