Protecting children from sexual exploitation

Last updated: 05 Sep 2018
Introduction

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group 2013; Department for Education, 2017; NIdirect, 2018; Scottish Government, 2018;).

Children and young people in sexually exploitative situations and relationships are persuaded or forced to perform sexual activities or have sexual activities performed on them in return for gifts, drugs, money or affection.

CSE can take place in person, online, or using a combination of both.

Perpetrators of CSE use a power imbalance to exploit children and young people. This may arise from a range of factors including:

  • age
  • gender
  • sexual identity
  • cognitive ability
  • physical strength
  • status
  • access to economic or other resources

(Department of Education, 2017).

Sexual exploitation is a hidden crime. Young people have often been groomed into trusting their abuser and may not understand that they're being abused. They may depend on their abuser and be too scared to tell anyone what's happening because they don’t want to get them in trouble or risk losing them. They may be tricked into believing they're in a loving, consensual relationship.

Some children and young people are trafficked into or within the UK for sexual exploitation.

> Find out more about child trafficking and modern slavery

Child sexual exploitation online

When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded or forced to:

  • have sexual conversations by text or online
  • send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
  • take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone

(Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person's friends and family unless they take part in further sexual activity. Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.

Watch: The story of Jay

Impact

Impact of child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can have long-term effects on young people's wellbeing, impacting on their life into adulthood.

Some difficulties faced by children and young people who have been sexually exploited include:

  • isolation from family and friends
  • falling behind on schoolwork, failing exams or dropping out of school altogether
  • teenage parenthood
  • unemployment
  • mental health problems
  • alcohol and drug addiction
  • having a criminal record
  • suicidal thoughts and attempts

(Parents against child sexual abuse, 2013; Safe and Sound, 2013; Berelowitz et al, 2012).

Impact of online child sexual exploitation

Research suggests that online child sexual abuse can have as much of an impact on a child as abuse that only takes place offline and can lead to the same psychological difficulties (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017). Effects can include:

  • self-blame
  • flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
  • difficulties sleeping
  • nightmares
  • extreme tiredness
  • difficulties concentrating
  • difficulties keeping up with school work
  • behavioural problems at school
  • depression
  • low self-esteem
  • social withdrawal
  • panic attacks and anxiety
  • eating disorder or eating difficulties
  • self-harm

(Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

Children and young people can feel permanently exhausted:

“He would make me send pictures of myself, very inappropriate pictures, erm, videos of me in the shower, doing all sorts of things, and make me Skype him or use MSN to perform all sorts of sexual acts and I didn’t…I didn’t want to. I was being blackmailed because he said that I know where you live, I know this, I know that, I’ll come and harm your family if you don’t do this, and I felt like it’s never going to stop. So, it was a time when I was really tired and I felt like I was being, like…treated like a slave almost…”

(Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

Digital technology makes it possible to be contacted at any time – day or night. Contact at night increases the abuser’s control over the child’s life and increases secrecy around the abuse itself. A child may feel powerless, like there is no escape from the abuse (Munro, 2011; Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

If children have been sexually exploited and evidence is shared online (such as explicit images), they are being abused again every time somebody views it. As it’s very difficult to track and remove online images, it can be very traumatic for young people and make it very difficult for them to move forward following the abuse.

Recognising

Recognising child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can be very difficult to identify. Warning signs can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour.

Behavioural indicators

Children and young people who are being sexually exploited may display certain behaviours:

  • displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour for their age
  • being fearful of certain people and/or situations
  • displaying significant changes in emotional wellbeing
  • being isolated from peers/usual social networks
  • being increasingly secretive
  • having money or new things (such as clothes or a mobile phone) that they can't explain
  • spending time with older individuals or groups
  • being involved with gangs and/or gang fights
  • having older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • missing school and/or falling behind with schoolwork
  • persistently returning home late
  • returning home under the influence of drugs/alcohol
  • going missing from home or care
  • being involved in petty crime such as shoplifting
  • spending a lot of time at hotels or places of concern, such as known brothels
  • not knowing where they are, because they have been trafficked around the country (Department for Education, 2017).

Physical signs include:

  • unexplained physical injuries and other signs of physical abuse
  • changed physical appearance - for example, weight loss
  • scars from self-harm (Department for Education, 2017).

Repeat sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations can also be a sign of CSE (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

Risks and vulnerability factors

Child sexual exploitation can happen to any child or young person – whatever their background, age, gender, race or sexuality. But research has identified certain factors that may make a child or young person more vulnerable to CSE. These include:

  • low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • lacking friends from the same age group
  • being a young carer
  • being in or leaving care
  • a history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse 
  • recent bereavement or loss
  • homelessness
  • links to a gang through relatives, peers or intimate relationships
  • living in a gang-affected neighbourhood (Department for Education, 2017).

Perpetrators of child sexual exploitation

CSE can be perpetrated by:

  • individuals or groups
  • males or females
  • children or adults.

The abuse can be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents over time and range from opportunistic to complex organised abuse. (Department for Education, 2017).

Identifying perpetrators is difficult because:

  • data isn't always recorded or is inconsistent or incomplete
  • children and young people may only know their abuser by an alias, nickname or appearance
  • victims may be 'passed between' abusers and assaulted by multiple perpetrators
  • children and young people are often moved from location to location and abused in each place
  • young people may be given alcohol or drugs, so may not remember details clearly (Berelowitz et al, 2012).

People who sexually exploit children are often described as highly manipulative individuals. They exert power over young people through physical violence, emotional blackmail or financial pressure, for example holding them in debt.

Perpetrators may use one victim to gain access to others, persuading or forcing a child or young person to bring their friends along to pre-arranged meetings or 'parties'. In some cases, if a child or young person tries to break free, the perpetrator will use their peers to draw them back in (Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP), 2011).

Responding

Responding to child sexual exploitation

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Assessment

When assessing the risk of CSE, it's important for professionals to:

  • take a collaborative and supportive approach
  • remember that the victim is not to blame
  • use professional judgement
  • gather as much narrative information as possible - this helps to see the bigger picture and understand risk and protective factors
  • include all potential indicators of risk such as:
    • online/social media communication
    • gaming
    • drug and/or alcohol use
    • gang involvement
    • deprivation/poverty
    • disability
    • sexual interests and attitudes
  • focus on factors that may put a child at risk of harm, rather than assessing incidents that have already taken place
  • make sure the tool you’re using is appropriate for the child (some risk assessment tools don’t contain indicators for boys, younger children and disabled children)
  • look at protective factors or strengths of young people, their families and their immediate environment
  • make sure professionals are trained to assess the risk of CSE - it may also be useful to provide lists of risk and protective indicators to help less experienced staff (Brown et al, 2017).
Prevention

Preventing child sexual abuse

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can be stopped. To prevent CSE and keep children safe, it's vital to:

  • raise awareness of the signs of CSE
  • teach children and young people about healthy relationships
  • make sure everyone knows how to report concerns (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

Community awareness

Building community awareness of what CSE is and the signs to watch for is key to help keep children and young people safe. Communities can be the strongest allies in protecting children from exploitation (Coffey at al, 2014).

The night-time economy

Businesses and services in the night-time economy – such as fast-food outlets, accident and emergency, security services, bars and night clubs, taxi firms, hotels and bed and breakfasts are well placed to identify children at risk of CSE and report concerns to the relevant authorities (D'Arcy and Thomas, 2016).

It's important that workers in the night-time economy:

  • understand what CSE is and who it affects
  • recognise possible signs that a young person is being sexually exploited
  • understanding how to share concerns and help keep young people safe (D'Arcy and Thomas, 2016).

Multi-agency approach

Sharing information across agencies/organisations is key to identifying early indicators of CSE – for example, a child or young person missing from home, school or care – and taking action to support children at risk (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

It’s important that all partners take responsibility for their roles, work collaboratively with each other and have a shared understanding of how to tackle CSE (HM Inspectorate of Probation, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Care Quality Commission, and Ofsted, 2016).

Best practice for multi-agency responses to CSE includes:

  • working together to map CSE in the local area – identifying which children are at risk and what the patterns of abuse are
  • raising awareness of CSE
  • working together to support young people at risk of CSE (HM Inspectorate of Probation, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Care Quality Commission, and Ofsted, 2016).

Empowering children and parents

It’s vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can speak out about any problems they are experiencing. Children of all ages need support to identify abusive and controlling relationships and to speak out if something is wrong.

It’s also important that parents know how to keep their children safe and have open discussions with them about anything that’s bothering them.

> Share our advice for parents on how to have conversations about difficult topics on the NSPCC website.

Parents have a vital role to play in safeguarding their child from CSE. They are often the first to identify signs that something is wrong with their child (Parents against child sexual abuse, 2016). So it's essential that practitioners ensure parents receive information on the early warning signs of CSE. When these signs appear, parents can then share information with the police, which can help to identify perpetrators and be successful in prosecuting them (Parents against child sexual abuse, 2016).

It’s also essential for agencies and specialist organisations to provide non-judgemental support to parents - to listen, understand, respect and value the contributions parents can make in safeguarding their child (Parents against child sexual abuse, 2016).

Keeping children safe online

Children can be vulnerable to sexual exploitation in the online world. There are actions parents, carers and organisations can take to keep online spaces safe for children.

Direct work

Direct work with children who have experienced child sexual exploitation

Children who have experienced CSE may have extremely complex needs. Our therapeutic services can help those who have been sexually exploited move forward from their experience.

Protect and Respect supports children and young people aged 11 to 19 who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited, through three levels of support:

  • Protection: educating young people about keeping safe, helping them understand what CSE and grooming are.
  • Risk reduction: helping young people to maintain a safer environment and more stable lifestyle.
  • Recovery: supporting young people to make sense of what's happened, helping them understand that sexual exploitation is abuse and it's not their fault.

We're currently evaluating our Protect and Respect service to find out what works in protecting young people from child sexual exploitation and its effects.

> Find out more about our Protect and Respect service on the NSPCC website

Letting the Future In (LTFI): this evidence-based programme helps children who have been sexually abused get back on track. The programme has also been adapted for children age 4-19 with a disability.

We evaluated LTFI and learned that it resulted in positive changes for children, including:

  • improved mood
  • better confidence
  • reduction in guilt and self-blame
  • reduced depression, anxiety and anger
  • improved sleep patterns
  • better understanding of appropriate sexual behaviour (Carpernter, 2016).

We’re supporting other organisations to deliver Letting the Future In. This includes successfully training social care professionals to deliver therapeutic work.

> Find out more about Letting the Future In (LFTI) on the NSPCC website

Hear and Now helps children who are displaying signs that they have been sexually abused, but haven’t told anyone about it. It aims to address the behavioural and emotional difficulties they face.

> Find out more about our Hear and Now service on the NSPCC website

Schools

School staff and volunteers are well placed to build positive relationships with children and young people and spot any signs that a child may be being sexually exploited.

School policy, ethos and training

All staff and volunteers should:

  • read and understand the school’s child protection policy
  • understand what action to take if you have concerns about a child
  • complete face-to-face or online child protection training about child protection so you are aware of the indicators of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and know how to respond appropriately
  • understand and follow the process for reporting child protection concerns
  • be aware of the different ways CSE can take place, both online and offline
  • make sure children know they can talk to you if they have a problem.

The nominated child protection lead should:

  • take lead responsibility for child protection in the school, in liaison with the head and governors
  • attend advanced training to enable you to respond effectively to safeguarding concerns
  • attend any inter-agency training on child sexual exploitation (CSE)
  • read and understand the local and national guidance about CSE
  • raise awareness of CSE with staff and volunteers
  • support staff and volunteers who raise concerns about CSE
  • make sure children know they can talk to you if they have a problem.

The head and the governors should:

  • ensure all staff read and understand the school’s child protection policy which should cover all forms of abuse, including child sexual exploitation (CSE)
  • make sure the school’s child protection policy and procedures are kept up to date and include:
    • a definition of CSE
    • information about the signs and indicators of CSE
    • information about what staff and volunteers should do if they have concerns about a child
  • read and understand the national guidance about CSE
  • ensure all staff and volunteers receive regular child protection training
  • put support systems in place for children that have been sexually exploited
  • make sure children know they can approach any member of staff or volunteer if they have a problem and that they will be listened to and taken seriously
  • promote sources of help such as Childline around school so children know where to go to get help if they don’t feel able to talk to a trusted adult
  • promote healthy relationships through the whole school ethos, lessons and assemblies
  • provide parents with information about CSE including what action the school is taking to prevent it and support children affected by it.

Responding to concerns about sexual exploitation

All staff and volunteers should:

  • notice any signs that a child is at risk of CSE and respond appropriately
  • listen to children’s concerns and respond calmly and non-judgmentally
  • never promise to keep what a child tells you a secret – explain that you need to tell someone else who can help
  • follow the school’s child protection policy and procedures when you have concerns about a child
  • report your concerns to the nominated child protection lead as soon as possible
  • make clear records of concerns following the school’s procedures.

The nominated child protection lead should:

  • receive concerns shared by other school members of staff
  • gather as much information as possible and decide what action to take in line with the school’s child protection policy and national guidance
  • assess the seriousness of concerns and share information with agencies such as the police or children’s services as appropriate
  • keep clear and robust records about all reported child protection concerns and their impact on the child
  • attend any relevant inter-agency child protection meetings
  • involve parents and keep them informed throughout the process (unless doing so would put a child at further risk of harm)
  • make sure the child understands what action you are taking and why.

The head and the governors should:

  • ensure children who have experienced CSE are able to access the right support, for example by arranging school counselling or contacting external support services
  • ensure robust procedures for dealing with incidents of CSE are followed
  • support the nominated child protection lead with the referral process and challenge decisions if you feel a child is at serious risk of harm and not receiving appropriate help
  • inform parents of what’s happening unless there is reason to believe doing so would put the child at further risk of harm
  • review policies and procedures in the light of any lessons learned from a child protection incident.

Preventing child sexual exploitation in schools

It’s important to teach children messages about healthy relationships from a young age so that they are confident in recognising and assessing risk within their own relationships as they get older and know how to get help when they need it.

Talking to young people about healthy relationships can also help create positive social norms and challenge unhealthy behaviours.

Part of this approach can include inviting police officers into schools to interact with children and deliver messages on how to keep safe (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).
Younger children can learn about healthy relationships in an age and stage appropriate way. It’s important to help them explore topics such as:

  • friendships
  • appropriate touch
  • keeping safe
  • recognising and assessing risk
  • knowing how and where to get help when needed.


Our Speak out. Stay Safe service provides schools with trained volunteers who deliver assemblies and lessons to children aged 5-11 about all forms of abuse including exploitative relationships.

Our PANTS resources for schools include lesson plans and teaching guidance to help younger children learn the underwear rule and understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch.

For older children, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) (England), personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) (Northern Ireland), and personal and social education (PSE) (Wales and Scotland) and relationships and sex education (RSE) is a good opportunity to talk about healthy relationships and online safety.

We’ve produced a range of lesson plans for children aged 10-16 about making sense of relationships which cover:

  • online safety
  • online friendships
  • consent
  • sexualised behaviour
  • unhealthy relationships
  • sharing sexual images.

AGENDA is our free online toolkit developed with young people, for young people (Renold, 2016). It supports them in safely and creatively challenging gender inequalities and oppressive gender norms.

School mentoring systems can also be a bridge between young people and agencies such as the police and social services. It's essential for young people to have a continuous relationship with somebody they can trust - who they feel understands them and who they can talk to (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

References and resources

References and resources 

All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group (2013) Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who are at risk of abuse through sexual exploitation (PDF). [Cardiff]: Welsh Government.

Berelowitz, S. et al (2012) “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry in to child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups: interim report (PDF) . London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Brown, S., et al (2017) The use of tools and checklists to assess the risk of child sexual exploitation: an exploratory study (PDF). [London]: Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse.

Carpenter, J.Et al. (2016) Letting the Future In: a therapeutic intervention for children affected by sexual abuse and their carers An evaluation of impact and implementation. London: NSPCC.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP) (2011) Out of mind, out of sight: breaking down the barriers to child sexual exploitation: executive summary. London: CEOP.

Coffey, A. and Lloyd, T. (2014) Real voices: child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester (PDF).[Manchester]: Greater Manchester Police Force.

D'Arcy, K. and Thomas, R. (2016). Nightwatch: CSE in plain sight (PDF). [Luton]: University of Bedfordshire.

Department for Education (2017) Child sexual exploitation: definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation (PDF). [London]: Department for Education.

Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., et al (2017) "Everyone deserves to be happy and safe": a mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it. London: NSPCC.

HM Inspectorate of Probation, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Care Quality Commission, and Ofsted (2016). ‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children (PDF). Manchester: Ofsted.

Munro, E.R. (2011) The protection of children online: a brief scoping review to identify vulnerable groups (PDF). [London]: Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.

NIdirect (2018) Child sexual exploitation - protecting children and young people

Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE) (2013) The impact of child sexual exploitation. [Leeds]: Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE).

Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE) (2016) Parents speak out: crucial partners in tackling child sexual exploitation. Leeds: PACE.

Renold, E. (2016) A young people's guide to making positive relationships matter. [Cardiff]: Cardiff University, Children's Commissioner for Wales, NSPCC Cymru, Welsh Government, Welsh Women's Aid. 

Safe and Sound Derby (2013) The impact of child sexual exploitation. Derby: Safe and Sound.

Scottish Government (2018) National action plan to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation: progress report 2017/18 (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Scottish Government.

Elearning

Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse:

Further reading:

For further reading about child sexual exploitation, search the NSPCC Library using the keyword "child sexual exploitation".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.

Support for children and young people

Childline provides information and advice for young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships. It has also created animated videos about:

Through the Childline website, young people can contact the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) anonymously to get abusive images removed from the internet.

Related NSPCC resources

Read our learning from case reviews about child sexual exploitation.

Read the evaluation of our Letting the Future In programme.

Read our report about the impact of online and offline sexual abuse.

Read our NSPCC helplines report about responding to children’s and parents’ concerns about sexual content online.