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Different forms of child exploitation

Every year, thousands of children in the UK are exploited. Some have been groomed into county lines drug trafficking, others face sexual abuse in their own communities. No matter the form of child exploitation, the language we use to talk about young people can often decide if they are kept safe or put more at risk. Here we look at how exploitation has changed over the years and how we can break the cycle of abuse.

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Prosecuted ‘prostitutes’ 

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. These children were coerced, manipulated and groomed into exploitative situations.

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

girl smiling in park

I'm in a
better place
I'm in a better place

After years of being trapped in a cycle of exploitation and abuse, Lauren has broken free from her abusers. She now feels happy, confident and ready to help others.

Modern exploitation

Modern exploitation

In recent years, new types of exploitation have been uncovered and we need to learn the same lessons we did with child sexual exploitation. We must stop treating children as criminals and give them the help they need.

We must challenge the language we hear about young people who are involved in international trafficking, labour exploitation and child criminal exploitation. How young people are described can determine the way 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 response kicks into action.

forms of child exploitation blog

new forms of exploitation

New forms, same methods

Although the forms of exploitation are changing, the methods stay the same. An adult will target a child, trick them into trusting them, and then abuse their power for their own needs. This is known as 'grooming' and it is used for both criminal exploitation and sexual exploitation. 

Criminals may be more likely to groom children who live in poverty, face exclusion from mainstream school, or are in care. We must work to change the systems and contexts that puts these children at risk. 

Whether it’s through sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or criminal exploitation and county lines — children shouldn't be blamed for the abuse they experience. They are not the problem.

young woman in fluffy coat talking to project worker

Challenging the language of exploitation

When talking about children and exploitation, language matters. It can be the difference between a child being properly safeguarded or pushed further at risk. 

You may hear children referred to as 'money mules' or 'gift girls'. But they are not animals or objects. This language dehumanises the young person and ignores the abuse. It needs to be challenged.

We work hard to make sure the right language is used so that children can be better protected and kept safe from all forms of exploitation.