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Rising tides of child exploitation

Despite successive governments promising to take a strong stand against the exploitation of children, recent figures suggest the fight is far from over. The number of young people arrested for drugs or weapons has increased, social services are taking on more children because of gangs and police operations are ramping up against exploitation.


the context of criminal exploitation

boy on bus hiding mouth under his coat looking out of window

The blame game

When criminals need to shift drugs, it is often children who find themselves caught in the middle. These young people have usually been criminally exploited. They are manipulated into carrying drugs from place to place. It means the criminals don’t have to get their hands dirty or risk getting caught. 

When these children are caught, many are treated like criminals when they should be seen as victims of crime.

In 2019/20 nearly 7,000 children were arrested for drug offences. A further 2,063 were charged with weapon offences.

Facts and figures


children were arrested for drug or weapon offences in 2019/20


of these were first time offenders mostly aged 10 to 14

Breaking the cycle

Not only are these numbers high but they are also rising. For many of these children it is the beginning of a long journey through the criminal justice system.

It has been found that around 40% of them reoffend.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A lack of understanding of what child criminal exploitation actually is or looks like means the right questions aren’t being asked when children are arrested.

We work with the police and local authorities to build this understanding. More often than not they are not aware they have been groomed. And even if they do, they fear the consequences of telling the police. We reassure them they're not in trouble and make sure they're better protected.

young man head down laughing eyes closed

Child criminal exploitation

County lines and child exploitation must stop. We work hard to end this type of abuse and give those who have been exploited a chance for a better future.

Going viral

Going viral

Criminal exploitation doesn’t just happen in person. Criminals are using the internet more and more as a way to groom young people. They may use social networks, online games or live streaming sites to develop a relationship. Our project workers have shown that exploitation doesn't just stop in a pandemic.

Older gang members are grooming younger boys and giving them errands via social media. They start off small and build up, with the tasks getting more difficult or risky.  

girl looks at phone in the streeet

Facts and figures on child criminal exploitation


increase in children referred to social services due to concerns about trafficking in 2020


increase in children referred to social services due to concerns about gangs in 2020

criminal exploitation

Young people have shown us WhatsApp messages inviting them to ‘call if you want to make some money,’ with an image of a pile of cash.

One boy explained, calling the number listed ‘links you up with someone who will help you start selling drugs’. They described the excitement they felt at receiving the invitation. There are similar messages and memes on Twitter and YouTube promoting ‘quick and easy money’ from drug dealing. 

Turning things around

We work hard to stop criminal exploitation of children. Our services are there so young people have someone to talk to. We make sure they are treated as victims, not criminals. We work with them to rebuild their lives and make sure they aren't targeted by criminals again. 

We also work with local authorities to help them do the best they can to safeguard children and stop criminal activity. The more awareness there is, being able to spot the signs of exploitation, the more likely we are to be able to stop the numbers rising.