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Training Law Enforcement to Address Child Criminal Exploitation

The statistics are startling. In the year ending March 2021, police recorded a 27% increase in the number of modern slavery offences involving a child – and 64% of these were for forced or compulsory labour. There is an ongoing battle against child criminal exploitation, whether it be through trafficking, online predators or other nefarious activities. Understanding and tackling the issue demands specialised knowledge and skills. 

In this guide, we explore this need for specialised training within law enforcement agencies so that those on the front line can address the multifaceted issue head-on. By examining the challenges faced by officers in identifying, investigating and prosecuting perpetrators, we can equip law enforcement agencies with the tools and expertise to combat this heinous crime.

With such a sensitive matter that deals with the safeguarding of vulnerable children, it is obvious that traditional policing methods are insufficient. 

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

Child criminal exploitation encompasses a range of nefarious activities where children are coerced, manipulated or forced into criminal activity for the benefit of others. Exploitation happens in many forms, including:


Children may be trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour or other illicit purposes. Traffickers prey on the vulnerability of children and often lure them with false promises through grooming techniques. 

Online Predation

Technology has provided predators with new ways to groom and exploit children. Through gaming platforms, social media and other online forums, perpetrators manipulate children into engaging in harmful activities or sharing inappropriate material.

Gang Involvement

Gangs sometimes exploit children by coercing them into criminal activities. This may include drug trafficking, violence or theft. This is all done under the guise of protection or a sense of belonging. 

Forced Theft or Begging

Some children are exploited through forced theft or begging. Perpetrators use various tactics like manipulation, violence and threats to control children and profit from their actions. 

The impact of child criminal exploitation on its victims

Children subjected to exploitation often suffer physical, emotional and psychological harm. This can have long-lasting consequences for their development and wellbeing. They may experience trauma and fear, and often lose trust in authority figures and adults. Exploitation also disrupts social relationships, education and future prospects as young people become trapped in cycles of victimisation and vulnerability.

Given the intricacies of child criminal exploitation, law enforcement officers require specialist training. Traditional policing methods may not adequately equip officers with the knowledge and skills needed to identify, investigate and intervene in cases of child exploitation. Specialised training enables them to recognise the signs, understand the dynamics at play, and use appropriate strategies to safeguard children and hold perpetrators accountable. 

Law enforcement training on child exploitation

The Need for Specialised Training

The investigation of child criminal exploitation cases presents unique challenges and complexities for law enforcement officers. Unlike traditional criminal investigations, cases involving child exploitation often require a nuanced understanding of child psychology and trauma-informed approaches. These challenges include:

The vulnerability of victims

Children who are exploited are often too young or naïve to understand the illicit nature of what they’re going through. They may also be too intimidated to disclose it, which makes it difficult for officers to identify victims and gather evidence. Victims often have complex relationships with their abusers too, which further complicates things. 

Digital complexity

Digital technology makes it possible for perpetrators to exploit children online. This makes it challenging for law enforcement to track and apprehend offenders. Investigating online exploitation requires specialised knowledge of digital forensics and internet safety protocols. 

Multi-agency coordination

Child exploitation cases often require collaboration between multiple agencies. This includes law enforcement, social services, schools and other child advocacy organisations. Coordinating efforts and sharing information is essential for a comprehensive and victim-centred approach. 

Legal and ethical considerations

When investigating child exploitation cases, officers must navigate complex legal frameworks. They must adhere to strict protocols to protect the rights of victims when gathering evidence. They are faced with the difficulty of balancing the need for justice with the need to minimise further trauma to victims. 

Generic law enforcement training vs training for child exploitation cases

Generic training provides a solid foundation for basic investigative techniques and procedures. However, it may not prepare officers adequately for dealing with child exploitation cases. Specialised training is needed to equip officers with the knowledge, skills and resources they need. This has several advantages:

  • Enhanced awareness. Specialised training raises awareness of the prevalence and dynamics of such cases. It allows officers to recognise signs of abuse and exploitation more effectively.
  • Advanced skills. Training is given in specialised investigative techniques like forensic interviewing, victim-centred approaches and digital evidence analysis. This gives officers the tools they need to conduct sensitive yet thorough investigations.
  • Interdisciplinary coordination. Specialised training facilitates collaboration and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, social services and other stakeholders. This improves the effectiveness of interventions.
  • Trauma-informed. Specialised training emphasises the importance of trauma-informed practices in working with child victims. It helps officers to better understand and respond to the unique needs of exploited children with sensitivity and empathy.

Key Training Components

Specialised training programmes encompass a range of essential components. These include:

  • Recognising the signs of exploitation – physical, behavioural and psychological signs. It also includes understanding the patterns of grooming, coercion and manipulation used by perpetrators.
  • Interviewing child victims – how to conduct sensitive and developmentally appropriate interviews with child victims of exploitation. This involves rapport-building techniques, how to elicit information without re-traumatising the child and recognising the impact of trauma on memory and disclosure.
  • Understanding digital exploitation – training on digital safety protocols, how to investigate online grooming and exploitation, and techniques for collecting and analysing digital evidence.
  • Legal and ethical considerations – training covers the understanding of relevant laws, policies and procedures. It includes mandatory reporting requirements, victim rights and privacy considerations.
  • Collaboration with partner agencies – training on the importance of collaboration with the likes of social services, child advocacy organisations and other law enforcement entities. This includes information-sharing, coordinated interventions and a victim-centred response.
  • Trauma-informed practices – training should include the development of trauma-informed approaches when working with child victims. It includes recognising the impact of trauma on behaviour and the understanding of its neurobiological effects. Officers learn to empathise and validate children’s experiences while prioritising their safety and wellbeing.
  • Cultural competency – training should address the cultural and linguistic diversity of children within the community and the potential impact on how exploitation is reported and perceived. This might include the promotion of cultural sensitivity, how to overcome language barriers and how to adapt investigative approaches accordingly.
  • Continuous education – specialised training needs to be ongoing in response to emerging trends and challenges. This means providing officers with access to resources, updates on best practices and opportunities for peer support.
child exploitation

What does trauma-informed practice mean and what does it look like?

Trauma-informed practice refers to an approach that recognises the impact of trauma. It seeks to create an environment that is sensitive and supportive to those who have experienced trauma. It is based on the understanding of the profound effects that trauma can have on a child’s physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. 

Key aspects of trauma-informed practice include:

  • Safety: physical and emotional safety is crucial. This means creating an environment where a child feels safe and secure so as to reduce the likelihood of re-traumatisation.
  • Trustworthiness and transparency: building trust is essential here. Practitioners strive to be honest, transparent and reliable when they interact with children who have experienced trauma. The aim is to build trust and rapport.
  • Choice and empowerment: trauma-informed practice recognises the importance of empowering young people to make choices over their own lives. Practitioners respect individual boundaries and preferences.
  • Collaboration: this is central to trauma-informed approaches. It emphasises partnership, shared decision-making and mutual respect.

Collaboration and Multi-Agency Approach

With a multi-agency approach towards child criminal exploitation, agencies can leverage their respective strengths and resources to provide comprehensive support and protection for vulnerable children.

Law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in investigating and prosecuting cases of child exploitation. Social services are essential in providing support, intervention and rehabilitation services for victims and their families. Additionally, other stakeholders like healthcare providers and educational institutions may also have a role to play in preventing exploitation, identifying victims and supporting survivors. 

Training programmes are important in facilitating effective collaboration. Here’s how:

  • Shared language: training programmes ensure that representatives from different agencies develop a common language and framework for collaboration.
  • Protocols and procedures: training programmes can help establish clear protocols and procedures for interagency collaboration. This includes mechanisms for sharing information, coordinating interventions and conducting joint investigations. With roles and responsibilities clear, there is minimum confusion and, therefore, a more cohesive approach and effective response.
  • Building relationships: training programmes that provide opportunities for professionals from different agencies to build relationships are effective. This lays the foundation for effective communication and collaboration. It also allows for cross-training and skill sharing, allowing participants to learn from each other’s experiences and expertise.

Multi-agency action for the prevention and intervention of child criminal exploitation

Thankfully, the government recognises the need to ensure a successful multi-agency response to the criminal exploitation of children. 

They carry out joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) of the multi-agency response in a local authority. These inspections are carried out by inspectors from Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

The main focus of the inspection is in relation to criminal exploitation but they also look at how agencies identify children at risk. They also look at preventing child criminal exploitation by raising awareness and disrupting the activities of those who seek to exploit children. The inspection process lasts three weeks and results in a letter of findings that sets out strengths, areas for improvement and areas for priority action. The latter is for any identified serious weakness that places children at risk. 

Ongoing Education and Improvement

As perpetrators of child criminal exploitation learn new tactics to evade detection, there is a real need for ongoing education. Law enforcement officers and other professionals involved in the field must ensure they remain informed and up to date with developments. 

With continuous professional development, officers can be trained on new investigative techniques, advancements in digital forensics and updates to relevant laws and regulations. They also learn the latest tactics being used by perpetrators. 

What’s more, ongoing education creates a culture of continuous improvement. Professionals are encouraged to reflect on practice and identify areas for improvement and growth. This may involve taking part in advanced training programmes, attending conferences or pursuing additional certifications or qualifications.

The College of Policing offers a range of CPD programmes. Examples that might be relevant when dealing with child criminal exploitation include:

Training law enforcment


As we’ve seen in this article, there is a need for specialised training for law enforcement officers in order to address the complex issue of child criminal exploitation. With the intricate nature of this crime, its varying forms and the impact it has on children, officers simply cannot afford to get it wrong. From trafficking to online predation, gang involvement and forced begging, children are vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. This leaves them scarred physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Recognising the unique challenges and complexities involved in investigating child exploitation cases, it’s clear that generic training may not be sufficient. There is a clear need for specialised training so that officers are able to recognise the signs of child criminal exploitation, interview child victims and know how to collaborate effectively with partner agencies. By working in a coordinated manner, all relevant agencies can provide vulnerable children with comprehensive support and protection. 

Ongoing training is crucial too. Continuous learning ensures that professionals stay abreast of emerging trends, best practices and legal developments. It allows them to adapt their strategies to keep pace with evolving threats. In summary, vulnerable children are reliant upon law enforcement teams and partner agencies being on top of their game. It’s a battle they can’t afford to lose.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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