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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Strategies for Identifying and Rescuing Victims of Child Criminal Exploitation

Strategies for Identifying and Rescuing Victims of Child Criminal Exploitation

Child criminal exploitation (CCE) happens when a person under the age of 18 is somehow controlled or manipulated into taking part in activities which break the law. 

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse and it puts children and young people at risk of serious mental, emotional and physical harm.

Children may be forced (using violence or threats) or groomed into taking part in criminal exploitation. Grooming is a pattern of behaviour used by offenders where they develop a rapport with a young person and achieve power over them. The goal of grooming is to abuse the child. Some offenders will also take the time to develop a relationship with the child’s family and loved ones. 

Sometimes, children are tricked or coerced into criminal activity with the promise of quick cash, designer goods or fame. They will almost always be threatened with harm if they do not comply. 

Children may be criminally exploited and forced into different types of crime, such as:

  • Sex work
  • Drug trafficking
  • Modern slavery
  • Stealing or shoplifting
  • Begging

One form of CCE that is often reported on in the news is county lines. This is where criminal gangs recruit vulnerable children and youths to traffic drugs across geographical areas, particularly into small towns (including coastal and market towns) and rural areas. This often goes hand in hand with other types of gang activity and violence. 

Although any child can be at risk of criminal exploitation, some children are especially vulnerable to being targeted. This is because they have unmet needs that criminals can exploit. Once a target child has been identified and a criminal has recognised what the target wants or needs, they will start trying to convince them that if the child just follows some instructions, these needs will be met. This might include initial instructions such as:

“Just hold this package for me and don’t look inside.”

“Just meet this man in this hotel and do whatever he wants.”

“Hold this phone for me overnight and answer it when it rings.”  

Children who face increased risk and are seen as attractive victims to criminals include:

  • ‘Looked after’ children (those who are in care)
  • Children outside of mainstream education
  • Children who live in houses where abuse, neglect or addiction is an issue
  • Children with learning difficulties, disabilities or mental health issues
  • Children who are runaways

Additional risk factors including poverty, housing instability or homelessness can make children even more vulnerable to being exploited by criminals. 

CCE can have a devastating impact on the lives of children and their families. It can lead to children experiencing being exposed to violence and harm and serious mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Child criminal exploitation

Recognising Signs of CCE

As discussed, there are various different forms of child criminal exploitation, and some can happen simultaneously. Some of the signs and indicators of child exploitation may include:

  • Sudden unexplained changes in a young person’s mood, behaviour or appearance
  • Becoming withdrawn or losing interest in hobbies and socialising
  • Emotional outbursts, mood swings
  • Persistent absences from school without explanation
  • A child showing fear towards a person, place or situation
  • Unexplained injuries (cuts, bruises, scratches etc.)
  • Restraint marks on wrists or ankles
  • Alcohol or substance abuse (including smoking cannabis or using hard drugs like cocaine)
  • Decline in mental health
  • Possessing drugs, weapons or stolen goods
  • Having unexplained cash or phones (especially old-fashioned ‘burner’ type phones)

The signs that a child is being sexually exploited are the same as if the child is experiencing sexual abuse (because they are). They include:

  • Problems walking or sitting down
  • Blood or rips in underwear
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Knowledge relating to sex beyond their years
  • Changes in behaviour or appearance
  • Depression, isolation or appearing withdrawn
  • Underage/teen pregnancy

Child sexual exploitation can include forcing a child into sex work, making them perform on webcam or taking explicit pictures of them to sell and distribute.

CCE can be perpetrated by an individual, although is it more common to be done by gangs or organised child trafficking rings. These people are often resourceful, powerful and well connected. 

Multi-Agency Collaboration

To fully address the problem of child criminal exploitation, a clear strategy that connects various agencies needs to be followed. This includes effective communication and information sharing between:

  • Social services
  • Law enforcement
  • Educators (including schools, SEND schools, pupil referral units)
  • Doctors and nurses (including sexual health nurses)
  • Local authorities

This collaborative effort brings together various organisations, each playing a distinct role in preventing and responding to CCE. 

Law enforcement agencies are key players, working to detect and prosecute those responsible for exploiting children. They also provide vital intelligence to inform the response of other agencies. 

Social services, including child protection officers and youth support groups, are critical in identifying and supporting victims of CCE. They should work closely with law enforcement to ensure that children receive appropriate care and protection. 

Additionally, healthcare providers, such as doctors, mental health professionals and sexual health nurses are essential in recognising the physical and psychological signs of CCE. They can provide necessary medical and therapeutic interventions to aid in the recovery of exploited children. The testimony of nurses working in sexual health can be critical in cases of CCE. It was a sexual health nurse named Sara Rowbotham who blew the whistle and exposed the horrific Rochdale grooming scandal after the victims had fallen through the cracks in multiple other agencies. 

Educational institutions, particularly schools, also have a significant role in preventing CCE. Teachers and school administrators can identify potential victims and provide early intervention by recognising changes in a child’s behaviour, attendance or academic performance. 

By working together, these agencies can share information, coordinate responses, and ensure a comprehensive approach to tackling CCE. 

Identifying and rescuing victims

Training and Awareness 

A multi-agency strategy allows for: 

  • A robust identification and intervention process
  • Improved chances of rescuing victims of exploitation
  • Holding offenders accountable

However, it is crucial that consistent training is given to people from all of the agencies that are involved with identifying, rescuing and rehabilitating victims of exploitation. 

To ensure that victims receive the right support and care they need, specialised agencies require key skills, such as:

  • Expertise in the field of CCE and child trafficking
  • Empathy and active listening
  • A high level of training and education
  • Access to resources
  • The ability to communicate effectively with one another

Good training and awareness help to underwrite an effective support system for victims. This ensures that children receive the holistic care and assistance that they need to process and recover from their horrific experiences. 

In the context of addressing child criminal exploitation (CCE), holistic care refers to a comprehensive approach that considers all aspects of a child’s well-being, rather than just focusing on a couple of specific areas. This approach acknowledges that a child’s recovery from exploitation involves more than just removing them from the exploitative situation. Holistic care for victims of CCE might include: 

  • Physical care: Providing access to medical care and nutrition and ensuring that the child’s basic needs are met.
  • Emotional support: Offering counselling, psychotherapy or another form of emotional support to help the child process their experience and manage any associated trauma.
  • Psychological care: Assessing and addressing any psychological harm or distress caused by the exploitation, including understanding its potential short- and long-term effects.
  • Educational support: Helping the child catch up on missed schooling, providing additional educational resources, or offering alternative educational pathways.
  • Legal support: Ensuring the child receives professional and appropriate legal advice and representation throughout the criminal justice process.
  • Family support: Involving the child’s family members in the support process and giving guidance, resources and emotional support as needed.
  • Social support: Reintegrating the child into their community, connecting them with positive social networks, and encouraging safe, social interactions.
  • Economic support: Providing access to resources, such as grants or benefits, to help the child and their family overcome any economic challenges resulting from the exploitation.
  • Housing support: Taking steps to address and reduce youth homelessness and striving to ensure all children grow up in a safe environment.

By addressing these various aspects of a child victim’s life, holistic care aims to support the child’s overall well-being, promote resilience and support their ability to recover from the trauma of experiencing CCE. While a collaborative approach ensures a unified response, holistic care increases the chances of a child’s diverse needs being met. 

It is vital that agencies across the board are trained to understand that rescuing victims of child criminal exploitation goes far beyond simply removing them from the exploitative situation.

Community Awareness

Spreading awareness in the community and amongst anyone who is in a good position to spot the signs that something is wrong, is crucial in tackling the issue of CCE and child abuse in general. Communities are often the best placed allies when it comes to child protection. The wider public need to be encouraged to speak up and to know that their concerns will be taken seriously. 

Employees who work in certain businesses may be in an ideal place to spot endangered children and signs of child trafficking. This is especially true for people working in the ‘night-time economy’, for example:

  • Hotels / bed and breakfasts
  • Fast food outlets
  • Taxi drivers

Many larger companies now require employees to undertake modern slavery training so they know what signs to look for and what to do if they see something that concerns them. 

Although CCE can intersect with many areas of life, other workers who may be more likely to come into contact with exploited children include those involved in the transport industry such as train guards or airport workers. This is especially true in instances of child trafficking, where children are moved around, within a country or between countries, for the purpose of being exploited. 

Support and Rehabilitation

Children often face many barriers that prevent them from seeking and receiving the support they need. They may experience feelings of guilt and shame about the activities they have taken part in or they may be afraid of being prosecuted. They may worry about experiencing stigma, judgement or being revictimised by having to explain and relive what has been done to them. Additionally, child victims are often extremely fearful and may be too scared to speak out. 

Some victims of criminal exploitation may not even recognise what has happened to them and may perceive themselves to have been complicit in events. This is because criminals can be extremely manipulative and controlling and are able to gaslight victims into believing that they are responsible for what has happened to them.

CCE is often a hidden crime. Professionals often find it difficult to:

  • Spot the signs of CCE
  • Identify victims
  • Understand the complexity of the effects of CCE
  • Gain the trust of victims

Improved awareness about the signs and impact of child criminal exploitation can lead to reduced stigma around victims of CCE. Victim blaming remains an issue in cases of child criminal exploitation, with many people misunderstanding:

  • Whether minors involved in CCE, including county lines, are being abused (CCE is always child abuse)
  • That exploited children are never willing victims
  • That young people are not ‘asking for it’ or deserving of this treatment because they are poor, marginalised or promiscuous
  • That CCE intersects diverse communities and socio-economic groups. It is not something that happens only in poverty stricken or inner-city areas, although disadvantaged children are more at risk.

Aside from empowering the general public to better recognise and report CCE, advocacy and awareness can also help to influence policymakers to prioritise CCE prevention and response, ensuring that adequate resources and funding are allocated to provide support and rehabilitation.

Victim of child criminal exploitation

Reporting and Legal Measures

Legislation in England that relates to some of the different aspects of child criminal exploitation includes:

Police are required to investigate reports about child criminal exploitation and many agencies have specially trained Safeguarding Officers who can help. If you need to make a report about CCE, it will help police if you have as much detail as possible, for example:

  • People, places or patterns of behaviour that concern you
  • Dates and times
  • Descriptions of people or vehicles

To report suspicions about child trafficking or CCE you can call 101 (for non-emergency) or 999 (in emergency situations). 

If you are an adult with concerns relating to a child, you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. 

If you are a child who needs support, you can call Childline on 0800 1111.

Conclusion

Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse that causes both short- and long-term harm to children and young people. Although it can affect any child, some communities and individuals are at greater risk because they are already in a situation where they are marginalised or disadvantaged.

Grooming a minor for the purposes of slavery or exploitation is child abuse and is highly illegal. A multi-agency approach is necessary to address the issue of CCE and to strengthen the rehabilitation process for young people who have been forced into crime.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.



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