Two recent reports – a serious case review by the Derby Safeguarding Children Board and Puppet on a String from the children’s charity Barnardo’s – raise serious questions about the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

Definition of sexual exploitation‘Sexual exploitation of children and young people under 18 involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive ‘something’ (eg food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities. Child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition; for example being persuaded to post sexual images on the internet/mobile phones without immediate payment or gain. In all cases, those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social/economic and/or emotional vulnerability.’

DCSF (2009) Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation: Supplementary Guidance to Working Together to Safeguard Children

The Derby report: the need to remember the exploited young person is a victim

In July 2010 Derby Safeguarding Board carried out a serious case review into the sexual exploitation of two girls. Abuse through sexual exploitation involves young people in sexual activity with many adults and is also often associated with gang culture. The young people who are subjected to sexual exploitation may also be involved with criminal behaviour and are often described as difficult to engage with helping agencies.

Derby’s review highlights the difficulties professionals have in being able to keep the exploited young person’s status as a victim of abuse intact when faced with out-of-control behaviour and an apparent unwillingness to seek help. The risk for such young people is that people give up on them. They are simply too hard to help – or worse people decide that they are not deserving of help.

The review tells the story of two young women who are sexually exploited by an organised group of men over a period of time. Both young women had difficult times as young children and the review points out that the impact of early childhood neglect is not properly recognised or understood and therefore the need for early intervention into such children’s lives is not recognised or acted upon. Basically, the review says that neglect and abuse in early childhood renders a child vulnerable to exploitation and abuse throughout adolescence and in many cases into adulthood.

The review comments on how many different types of assessment were carried out on each of the young women: educational, mental health, criminality and general development assessments. None of the assessments looked specifically at risk and there is little evidence of assessments being drawn together to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the girls’ situations or of their need for protection.

The increasingly difficult behaviour presented by these young women masked an increasingly risky situation for them and the review recognises that at certain points professionals appeared to have lost sight of them as victims of abuse. Their criminal behaviour became the main focus and it appears that professionals stopped questioning whether they were involving themselves in criminal behaviour through choice or under threat.

In this particular case both girls were the subjects of a number of plans: looked-after children plans, youth offending plans and child protection plans. However, it is clear from the review that the various plans were not integrated and there wasn’t a clear understanding of which plan took precedence. A consequence of this lack of information-sharing was that while the youth offending service was aware of the risk of abuse to the girls, there was little understanding of the link between criminal behaviour and the impact of sexual exploitation. The lack of information-sharing between children’s social care and youth offending meant that both girls were dealt with as offenders rather than victims of abuse.

Once the police began their enquiries the scale and complexity of the abuse was exposed and this should have alerted senior managers of the need to work very closely with other agencies.

A number of safeguarding boards have a multi-agency sub-group with the role of developing the understanding of sexual exploitation among professionals and young people in their area. A number of LAs have established regular multi-agency group meetings that ensure frontline professionals can share their information and keep up to date with new developments and the progression of individual cases. The multi-agency forum is essential in respect of this issue. All secondary schools should know how to share information with their multi-agency forum and information as to how to do this should be on each safeguarding children board website.

Derby’s report found that while workers tried to engage both girls in the development of plans for their futures, assumptions were made about their ability to make choices and decisions. Both the girls had difficulty seeing themselves as victims and the report suggests that some staff also held the view that the girls were going ‘willingly’ and were therefore not victims.

The Barnardo’s report: a call for training on recognising sexual exploitation

The Barnardo’s report calls for all professionals working with children and young people to be trained to recognise and report early signs and indicators of sexual exploitation and to draw on the expertise of specialist services.

On page 6 of the report, Barnardo’s identifies three main types of sexual exploitation:

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

2. ‘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.

Barnardo’s services have reported a rise in peer exploitation 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.

3. 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 or coerced into sexual activity with multiple men. Often this occurs at ‘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.

Signs and indicators of sexual exploitation

  • Going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late. The periods of time away from home and the frequency of going missing may increase and this may become such a pattern that professionals lose patience and stop looking for them. Any child who goes missing is vulnerable to abuse and may be easily tricked by promises of affection and a place to stay.
  • Disengagement from education: the young person may start skipping lessons or whole days and this behaviour is likely to escalate.
  • Appearing with unexplained gifts or new possessions: children who appear to have new clothes, jewellery, mobile phones or money that cannot plausibly be accounted for.
  • Peers and friends: association with other young people involved in exploitation and with older boyfriends/girlfriends.
  • Sexual health issues: a history of unprotected sex leading to sexually transmitted infections or inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • Changes in temperament/depression: mood swings or changes in emotional wellbeing. The young person may become aggressive and disruptive or extremely quiet and withdrawn.
  • Drug and alcohol misuse: young people may be introduced to drugs and alcohol by the abuser/s to create a dependency in order to control them.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviours, such as being over-familiar with strangers or sending sexualised images via the internet or mobile phones.
  • Involvement in exploitative relationships or association with known risky adults.
  • Talk of being taken to parties in distant towns or talk of being in cars with older men or a number of men.

Barnardo’s recognises that all young people are vulnerable to sexual exploitation because of their naivety in general and in particular their naïve sense of romance. However, Barnado’s also recognises that some groups of young people are more vulnerable including:

  • children in care
  • children excluded from mainstream schools
  • young people who are experimenting with drugs and alcohol
  • young people who have a history of childhood abuse
  • young people whose parents misuse drugs and alcohol
  • young people who have experienced or watched domestic violence

Barnardo’s reports that sexual exploitation is increasing. The young people caught up in it are getting younger, the more organised form of sexual exploitation is increasing and abusers are becoming more sophisticated in their grooming techniques.The charity is calling for a minister to be given responsibility for the issue of sexual exploitation.

What should schools do?

  • Read Puppet on a String
  • Offer sex and relationship teaching that covers sexual exploitation.
  • Invite in local specialist services to talk to whole year groups or smaller groups of targeted young people.
  • Find out about local multi-agency information-sharing forums. This information should be available on the local safeguarding children website.
  • Display and distribute posters and leaflets about sexual exploitation and where a young person can seek help.
  • Make child protection referrals as well as referring to specialist services that are most often voluntary agencies.
  • Talk to parents and refer to education welfare when children start missing schools.
  • Signpost parents to specialist services.
  • Listen to young people and take their disclosures seriously.
  • Do not give up on young people if they start to disengage with school.

Read Barnardo’s full report visit

Read the Derby serious case review