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Child exploitation

Child exploitation is a form of child abuse. It is where a person or group forces a child into doing something for them.  The child often trusts the person exploiting them. And may be being exploited even if they appear to agree to the activity. They may be scared of what will happen if they do not do what their abuser says.

Sometimes, young people themselves are used to exploit other children.

This means they are used by an adult to encourage others to take part in harmful activities. It is important to understand that these young people are themselves victims. Government statutory guidance called Working Together 2018 says that children’s services and other agencies should look into their safety and welfare too (see page 25 at paragraph 41).

Examples of child exploitation

Child exploitation can take many forms. Some of these are explained below.

Click on the drop downs to read more about each form

1. Child criminal exploitation

There is guidance called County Lines Exploitation for practitioners working with young people who are being exploited in this way.

  • Involvement in cannabis production.
  • Forced begging.

Involvement of young people in criminal activity is a common form of child exploitation. This might include:

  • Involvement in county lines. This is a term used to describe the activity of gangs involved in drug dealing around the country. Those involved in county lines are likely to exploit young people to move, store and sell drugs around the country. Young people may be trafficked to houses in different parts of the country in order to work for a gang involved in county lines.

2. Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is when someone (the perpetrator) takes advantage of a difference in power. They use this to then force, manipulate or deceive a child into sexual activity. This may be in exchange for something the child needs or wants. This could be food, or a place to stay, for example. Or could be done to help the perpetrator gain money or status.

It often starts with a perpetrator doing things to gain a young person’s trust. This is called ‘grooming’. Perpetrators may often target young people who they think are struggling or vulnerable in some way. For example, a young person who is isolated or who is being bullied.

Sexual exploitation does not always involve physical activity. It can occur through online abuse. And a child may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual.

The government has published guidance about Child Sexual Exploitation. This is for anyone working with children, and their families.  It aims to help them understand child sexual exploitation and how to help and support children who are victims.

3. Radicalisation

Radicalisation is a process through which someone comes to support extremist beliefs. Extremist beliefs are vocal or active opposition to key British values including: the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. The influence of those with extremist views on young people can also be a form of child exploitation.

See our Radicalisation page for further information and advice.

4. Financial abuse

This is where a young person’s bank account is used for money laundering. The person exploiting the young person hides money from crime (‘proceeds from crime’) in the young person’s account. The person exploiting the child then accesses the funds later.

Other examples include a property being rented in the name of a young person for their abuser to use. This could be as a base for criminal activity such a drug dealing. If rent is not paid, the young person gets into debt.  This affects their future financial independence.

Understanding child exploitation and getting help and support

What is the impact of exploitation on a child?

Exploitation can cause a child trauma and emotional harm. And a child may be suffering multiple forms of exploitation and harm all at the same time.

Example: A young person missing from home and drawn into criminal activity by an abuser may also be forced into drug use. This is so the abuser gains further control over the young person.

Is there early help for children and families if there are concerns a child is being exploited?

Early help aims for agencies to work together to provide support as soon as problems emerge. This is because tackling a problem early can stop things getting worse. Education (schools, colleges), housing, and health services are all examples of agencies. Early Help can be given to a family with a child up to age 18.

Government statutory guidance called Working Together 2018 says agencies should be alert to the potential need for early help for a child who is:

  • Showing signs of being drawn into anti-social or criminal behaviour, including gang involvement and association with organised crime group
  • Frequently missing or goes missing from care or from home
  • At risk of modern slavery, trafficking or exploitation
  • At of being radicalised or exploited.

See Working Together 2018, page 14 at paragraph 6.

Social workers are not involved in early help assessments or providing early help services. But sometimes, they ask early help services to provide assistance to children and families they are working with.

See our Early help page for more information about early help services.

What should children’s services do if they think a child is being exploited, or at risk of being exploited?

If children’s services receive information (a referral) that a child may be being exploited, they should decide certain things within one working day (see Working Together 2018 at page 33, paragraph 78).

These things are:

Children’s services must tell:

  • The person who made the referral what action (if any) they plan to take
  • The parent and the child what action (if any) they plan to take. But they should not do this if it may place the child at risk of harm (see Working Together 2018 at page 34, paragraph 80).

The way in which children’s services respond will depend on the precise situation.

How should an assessment be undertaken if a child is at risk of exploitation?

Where a decision is made that an assessment is needed, it should be carried out:

  • By a social worker with experience of working with families where children are at risk of exploitation
  • Following Government guidance about how to do ‘high quality’ assessments
  • Following the local protocol about how assessments in their area are to be done
  • Within 45 working days (around nine weeks).

See our Child in need and Child Protection pages for more detailed information about these types of assessment and how they should be approached.

Working Together 2018 also makes clear that where exploitation is a concern it is important that assessments of children and families look at wider environmental factors. And consider the individual needs of each child.  This mean children’s services should not only focus on a child’s home life. But also on looking at and understanding risks from:

  • The wider community
  • The young person’s peer group (other young people of a similar age or living in their area), and
  • People they are in contact with online.

They should look into at whether parents or carers understands any risk of exploitation to the child. And how parents can be best supported to understand the risks and to protect their child (see Working Together 2018 page 25, paragraph 14).

Where can a family get advice if they are worried that their child is being exploited?

Parents against child exploitation (Pace) works alongside parents and carers of children who are, or are at risk of being, exploited by perpetrators outside of the family.

Pace’s website provides advice and information for parents. And hosts a parents’ forum.

See the Child abuse, bullying and exploitation section of our Useful links page for details of other useful organisations and services that provide help and support to children and families.

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