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3.3.6 Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation


This document should be read in conjunction with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Safeguarding Children Board's Child Sexual Exploitation Strategy.


In October 2018, this procedure was fully revised to reflect local practice.


  1. Definition
  2. Risks
  3. Indicators
  4. Children who go Missing
  5. Key Actions
  6. Issues
  7. Supporting Children out of Child Sexual Exploitation
  8. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators
  9. Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme
  10. Further Information

1. Definition

Child sexual exploitation is a form 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 (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology (from Working Together to Safeguard Children).

See also Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE 2017). This is non-statutory and has been produced to help practitioners identify child sexual exploitation and take appropriate action. It includes advice on the management, disruption and prosecution of perpetrators.

2. Risks

Any child or young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances.

Sexual exploitation results in children and young people suffering harm, and can cause significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for their family. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress, siblings can feel alienated, their self-esteem can be affected and they may be vulnerable to being drawn into exploitation themselves. Family members can experience threats of abuse, intimidation and assault from perpetrators.

There are strong links between children involved in sexual exploitation and other behaviours such as running away from home or care, bullying, self-harm, teenage pregnancy, truancy and substance misuse. In addition, some children are particularly vulnerable, for example, children with special needs, those in residential or foster care, those leaving care, migrant and unaccompanied asylum seeking children, those at risk of forced marriage and those involved in gangs.

There is sometimes a presumption that children are sexually exploited by people they do not know. However evidence shows that this is often not the case and children are often sexually exploited by people with whom they feel they have a relationship, e.g. a boyfriend / girlfriend. Children are often persuaded that the boyfriend / girlfriend is their only true form of support and encouraged to withdraw from their friends and family and to place their trust only within the relationship.

Many children and young people are groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some young people are engaged in informal 'economies' that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and/or poverty. Some young people have been bullied, coerced and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gang members, which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.

Due to the nature of the grooming methods used by their abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are sexually exploited not to recognise that they are being abused. Practitioners should be aware that young people may believe themselves to be acting voluntarily and will be reluctant to recognise that they are being sexually exploited. This is not an issue, which affects only girls and young women, but boys and young men are also exploited.

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It can take many forms from the seemingly 'consensual' relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. (Human trafficking is the movement of a person from one place to another into conditions of exploitation, using deception, coercion, the abuse of power or the abuse of someone's vulnerability).

A common component of exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing their dependence as the exploitative relationship develops.

Technology, such as mobile phones or social networking, sites can play a part in sexual exploitation, for example, through their use to record abuse and share it with other like-minded individuals or as a medium to access children and young people in order to groom them.

Sexual exploitation has strong links with other forms of crime, for example, domestic violence and abuse, online and offline grooming, the distribution of abusive images of children and child trafficking.

The perpetrators of sexual exploitation are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They are known to target areas where children and young people gather without much adult supervision, such as parks, takeaway outlets and shopping centres or sites on the internet.

Children and young people may have been sexually exploited before they are referred to Children's Social Care; others may become targets whilst living at home or in care placements. They are often the focus of perpetrators due to their vulnerability. All practitioners and foster carers should therefore create an environment which educates children and young people about child sexual exploitation, involving relevant outside agencies where appropriate. They should encourage them to discuss any such concerns with them, or with someone from a specialist child sexual exploitation project, and also feel supported to share any such concerns about their friends.


This extract from The Office of the Commissioner for Children (OCC) Inquiry into CSE in Gangs and Groups (Nov 2012) considers the meaning of consent.

"The law not only sets down 16 as the age of consent, it also applies to whether a person has given their consent to sexual activity, or was able to give their consent, or whether sexual violence and rape in particular took place. In the context of child sexual exploitation, the term 'consent' refers to whether or not a child understands how one gives consent, withdraws consent and what situations (such as intoxication, duress, violence) can compromise the child or young person's ability to consent freely to sexual activity."

Practitioners must also consider other factors which might influence the ability of the person to give consent, including a learning disability or mental ill health.

In assessing whether a child or young person is a victim of sexual exploitation, or at risk, careful consideration should be given to the issue of consent. It is important to bear in mind that:

  • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sex (it is statutory rape) or any other type of sexual touching;
  • Sexual activity with a child under 16 is also an offence;
  • It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them;
  • Where sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old does not result in an offence being committed, it may still result in harm, or the likelihood of harm being suffered;
  • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim; and
  • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or his or her family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore offences may have been committed;
  • Child sexual exploitation is therefore potentially a child protection issue for all children under the age of 18.

3. Indicators

Anyone who has regular contact with children is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs that may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation.

Parents, carers and anyone in a position of responsibility with a child should also know how to monitor online activity and be prepared to monitor computer usage if they are concerned that a child is being groomed online.

The fact that a young person is 16 or 17 years old should not be taken as a sign they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation.

Young people with a disability may have increased vulnerability as well as young people up to the age of 21 who were looked after for whom the local authority has statutory care leaver responsibility and / or where there may be child in need and/or child protection issues.

Whilst the focus is often on older men as perpetrators, younger men and women may also be involved and practitioners must be alert to this possibility.

Barnardo's 'Puppet on a String' report 2011 sets out three different models of activity in the spectrum of sexual exploitation:

Inappropriate relationships

Usually involving one perpetrator who has inappropriate power or control over a young person (physical emotional or financial). There may be a significant age gap. The young person may believe they are in a loving relationship.

'Boyfriend' model of exploitation and peer exploitation

The perpetrator befriends and grooms a young person into a 'relationship' and then coerces or forces them to have sex with friends or associates.

Peer exploitation is where young people are forced or coerced into sexual activity by peers and associates. Sometimes this can be associated with gang activity, but not always.

Organised / networked sexual exploitation or trafficking

Young people (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced / coerced into sexual activity with multiple men. Often this occurs in 'sex parties', and young people who are involved may be used as agents to recruit others into the network. Some of this activity is described as serious organised crime and can involve the organised 'buying and selling' of young people by perpetrators.

Practitioners should ensure they are aware of current trends/methods of exploitation and the key indicators of child sexual exploitation. The following is not exhaustive, but these can include:


  • Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault);
  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections;
  • Pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion;
  • Evidence of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse;
  • Sexually risky behaviour.


  • Truancy/disengagement with education or marked change in performance at school.

Emotional and Behavioural Issues

  • Volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language;
  • Involvement in petty crime such as shoplifting, stealing;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • Frequenting places known to be used for sexual exploitation, including public toilets known for cottaging or adult venues (pubs and clubs).


  • Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behaviour, e.g. cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity.


  • Hostility in relationships with staff, family members as appropriate and significant others;
  • Physical aggression;
  • Placement breakdown;
  • Reports from reliable sources (e.g. family, friends or other professionals) suggesting the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation;
  • Detachment from age-appropriate activities;
  • Disengagement from friends; prioritisation of new 'friends';
  • Associating with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited;
  • Known to be sexually active;
  • Sexual relationship with a significantly older person, or younger person who is suspected of being abusive;
  • New and/or unexplained relationships with older adults/young people;
  • Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults online;
  • Phone calls, text messages or letters from unknown adults (possibly on a new/additional phone);
  • Adults or older youths loitering/waiting with cars outside the home;
  • Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation;
  • Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for in spite of having no known home base;
  • Missing for long periods, with no known base;
  • Going missing and being found in areas where they have no known links.

Social Presentation

  • Change in appearance;
  • Going out dressed in clothing unusual for them (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people).

Family and Environmental Factors

  • History of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parenting difficulties.


  • Pattern of previous street homelessness;
  • Having keys to premises other than their home.


  • Possession of large amounts of money with no plausible explanation;
  • Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phones or other possessions without plausible explanation;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding;
  • Travelling significant distances, using alcohol, drugs etc, without the funds to afford these.

4. Children who go Missing

A significant number of children and young people who are being sexually exploited may go missing from home or care, and also from education. Some go missing frequently. The more often they go missing the more vulnerable they are to being sexually exploited. If a child does go missing, the Children Missing from Care or Home Procedure should be followed.

Independent Return Interviews with the child or young person can help in establishing why they went missing and the subsequent support that may be required, as well as preventing repeat incidents or reducing the risks involved. These are undertaken by the MET Hub.

5. Key Actions

Where the concerns about the welfare and safety of the child or young person are such that a referral to Children's Social Care should be made the Enquiries and Referrals Procedure must be followed.

Where a member of staff or foster carer is concerned that a child or young person is involved in, or at risk of, sexual exploitation, they should contact the allocated social worker, or in their absence the Team Manager, at the earliest opportunity. They could also contact the Police if they are concerned a crime has been, or may be, committed. If the child is not currently open to social care, they should contact the Customer Service Centre.

When talking to young people about their experiences and the possibility that they are being exploited, it is important that appropriate and sensitive language is used that sees them as a victim and does not imply complicity. The LSCB has developed an Appropriate Language Toolkit to assist with this.

The referral form includes a section for information specific to CSE concerns and as much details as possible should be included.

Children's Social Care (either the MASH or local Assessment Team for new referrals, the allocated team for open cases) will assess the information, including the level and immediacy of any risk, to determine the approach to be taken. This could involve referral to Early Help, assessment under s17 or a Strategy Discussion with the Police, the referring agency and other relevant agencies. If the child is receiving hospital treatment and/or a medical examination is required the medical consultant must be involved.

Consideration will be given to undertaking a s47 child protection investigation and/or completion of a Single Assessment to better understand the nature of the risk and how to respond to it.

For open cases, the social worker should develop a Safety Plan as part of the process of working with the young person, parents/carers and other agencies involved.

Assessment of risk is supported by the Exploitation (CSE / Criminal Exploitation) Risk Assessment and Management Tool. Once completed, this should be sent to the MET Hub who take an overview of sexual exploitation activity.

Key to protecting children is the disruption of the exploitation and the activities of the perpetrator(s). Guidance can be found in the LSCB's Disruption Toolkit.

Where immediate action to safeguard a child is required, it may involve removing the child from the home of a person who is exploiting them to a safe place. However, those working with children in these circumstances must never underestimate the power of perpetrators to locate the child, or the child's apparent willingness to re-establish contact with them.

Should admission to local authority care be required, this must be approved through the Threshold and resources Panel (TARP), see Decision to Look After and Care Planning Procedure. Children who have been exploited will need placements with carers who have experience of building trusting relationships and skills at containing young people.

Placement in secure accommodation should only be considered in extreme circumstances, when a young person is at grave risk of significant harm. For a child under the age of 13, the approval of the Secretary of State must be sought.

Looked after children can be more vulnerable to exploitation. Substitute carers must be able to recognise the possible indicators of child sexual exploitation. Independent Reviewing Officers must be kept informed of any concerns relating to child sexual exploitation or any other form of suspected abuse. The child / young person's Care Plan must include a strategy to keep them safe and must be updated and reviewed regularly.

6. Issues

Working with sexually exploited children is a complex issue which can involve serious crime and investigations over a wide geographical area.

Children may be frightened of the consequences of disclosure and may need to be given time to discuss their experiences.

The need to share information discreetly in a timely fashion has been shown to be vital in these cases.

Agencies and practitioners involved with a child or young person experiencing child sexual exploitation must consider disruption strategies which support the child or young person to leave the situation they find themselves in. See Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE 2017).

The prosecution and disruption of perpetrators is an essential part of the process in reducing harm. It is the responsibility of the police to gather evidence, investigate and interview perpetrators and prepare case files for consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) with the intention of obtaining the successful conviction of offenders.

Many child sexual exploitation cases cross police force boundaries and therefore there should be cross boundary cooperation and information sharing. This may involve the National Crime Agency's CEOP Command (formerly Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) who may support the police by helping to coordinate cross-boundary or international investigations involving child sex offender networks or in the management of high risk offenders which may involve grooming through chat rooms and social networking sites or involvement with paedophile rings.

7. Supporting Children out of Child Sexual Exploitation

Practitioners from statutory agencies and voluntary sector organisations together with the child or young person, foster carers, and his / her family as appropriate, should agree on the services which should be provided to them and how they will be coordinated. The types of intervention offered should be appropriate to their needs and should take full account of identified risk factors and their individual circumstances. This may include, for example, previous abuse, missing incidents, involvement in gangs and groups and/or child trafficking. Health services provided may include sexual health services and mental health services. Advice should be sought from the nearest specialist service, which works with children and young people involved in child sexual exploitation. A referral should be made as appropriate, if the child or young person is in agreement.

For children who are Looked After issues raised and actions planned should be incorporated into the child's Care Plan and Placement Plan, and reviewed as part of the Looked After Child Review. For those living at home, a Child in Need Plan may be appropriate to coordinate services /support.

Because the effects of child sexual exploitation can last well into adulthood, support may be required over a long period of time. In such circumstances, effective links should be made between children and adult services and statutory and voluntary organisations. For young people who are Looked After, this should be incorporated into their Pathway Plan.

8. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators

The police and criminal justice agencies lead on the identification and prosecution of perpetrators. All practitioners, however, have a role in gathering, recording and sharing information with the police and other agencies, as appropriate and in agreement with them.

Practitioners and foster carers should bear in mind that sexual exploitation often does not occur in isolation and has links to other types of crime, including:

  • Child trafficking (into, out of and within the UK);
  • Domestic Violence and Abuse;
  • Sexual violence in intimate relationships;
  • Grooming (both online and offline);
  • Abusive images of children and their distribution (organised abuse);
  • Organised sexual abuse of children;
  • Drugs-related offences (dealing, consuming and cultivating);
  • Gang-related activity;
  • Immigration-related offences;
  • Domestic servitude.

Where alleged perpetrators are arrested and charged with offences against children or young people, allocated practitioners and foster carers should ensure the victims are supported throughout the prosecution process and beyond. Specialist agencies should be involved in supporting the child or young person, as required. This may include using special measures to protect them when giving evidence in court for example. Independent Sexual Violence Advisers or specialist voluntary sector services, if available, may also have an important role to play.

9. Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme

The Child Sex Offender Review (CSOR) Disclosure Scheme is designed to provide members of the public with a formal mechanism to ask for disclosure about people they are concerned about, who have unsupervised access to children and may therefore pose a risk. This scheme builds on existing, well established third-party disclosures that operate under the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child's interests.

The scheme has been operating in all 43 police areas in England and Wales since 2010. The scheme is managed by the Police and information can only be accessed through direct application to them.

If a disclosure is made, the information must be kept confidential and only used to keep the child in question safe. Legal action may be taken if confidentiality is breached. A disclosure is delivered in person (as opposed to in writing) with the following warning:

  • 'That the information must only be used for the purpose for which it has been shared i.e. in order to safeguard children;
  • The person to whom the disclosure is made will be asked to sign an undertaking that they agree that the information is confidential and they will not disclose this information further;
  • A warning should be given that legal proceedings could result if this confidentiality is breached. This should be explained to the person and they must sign the undertaking'.

If the person is unwilling to sign the undertaking, the police must consider whether the disclosure should still take place.

10. Further Information

Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017) - definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation.

What to do if You're Worried a Child is being Abused: Advice for Practitioners - guidance to help practitioners identify the signs of child abuse and neglect and understand what action to take.

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Barnardo's - Child Sexual Exploitation - resources and research on Child Sexual Exploitation.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue.

National Crime Agency - Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: Progress Report - gives an update on action the government is taking to deal with child sexual exploitation.

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: A Resource Pack for Councils - includes case studies

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation - College of Policing

Child Sexual Abuse - The Children's Commissioner

Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century, Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum, 2014