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Safeguarding Children and Young People Abused Through Sexual Exploitation

Scope of this chapter

This chapter is a generic chapter for Greater Manchester based on and summarising the government guidance: Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation (2009). It provides information about sexual exploitation, the roles and responsibilities of relevant agencies and the procedures practitioners should follow to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and young people who it is suspected have been sexually exploited.

Click on the links below for specific local procedures:

Foreword by Project Phoenix

There is a strong commitment from all key partners under the banner of Project Phoenix to improve our collective knowledge and understanding of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester and to develop a consistent and effective approach to identifying and responding to it.

It is vitally important that all partners involved in dealing with child sexual exploitation understand what child sexual exploitation is and how this differs from other forms of sexual abuse and recognise the indicators. Many definitions of child sexual exploitation are being used nationally which describe the characteristics of CSE and are useful for professionals, but it is important that the young people at risk recognise what is happening to them. Therefore Phoenix has agreed to use the definition developed by the Children's Society in collaboration with young people, which is:

'Someone taking advantage of you sexually, for their own benefit. Through threats, bribes, violence, humiliation, or by telling you that they love you, they will have the power to get you to do sexual things for their own, or other people's benefit or enjoyment (including: touching or kissing private parts, sex, taking sexual photos)'.

The website was launched in September 2014 to raise awareness with the public of Greater Manchester so they know what CSE is, can recognise the warning signs, know how to report it and know where to find help from their local specialist team. The website also has a section for professionals and the resources contained within are added to continuously.

Related guidance

Sexual exploitation of children and young people has been identified throughout the UK, in both rural and urban areas, and in all parts of the world. It affects boys and young men as well as girls and young women. It is a form of Sexual Abuse and can have a serious impact on every aspect of the lives of children involved.

It is a crime that knows no borders and, as indicated above, can be global in nature. Cross border cooperation is therefore crucial as it is possible that activity in one area may push perpetration across a border, together with the young victims.

Whilst it is not known how prevalent it is, sexual exploitation has become increasingly recognisable as practitioners gain more understanding of grooming and other methods of sexual exploitation and begin to take a proactive and coordinated approach to deal with it.

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. Working Together to Safeguard Children.

With effect from 29 June 2021, section 69 Domestic Abuse Act 2021 expanded so-called 'revenge porn' to include threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress.

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted, June 2021) identified substantial levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse for both girls (90%) and boys (nearly 50%). Significantly, this did not always appear to be recognised by the school or college.

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

Children involved in any form of sexual exploitation should be treated primarily as the victims of abuse and their needs carefully assessed; the aim should be to protect them from further harm and they should not be treated as criminals. The primary law enforcement response should be directed at perpetrators who groom children for sexual exploitation.

The government guidance requires agencies to work together to:

  • Develop local prevention strategies;
  • Identify those at risk of sexual exploitation;
  • Take action to safeguard and promote the welfare of particular children and young people who may be sexually exploited: and
  • Take action against those intent on abusing and exploiting children and young people in this way.

In doing so, the key principles should be:

  • A child-centred approach. Action should be focused on the child's needs, including consideration of children with particular needs or sensitivities, and the fact that children do not always acknowledge what may be an exploitative or abusive situation;
  • A proactive approach. This should be focused on prevention, early identification and intervention as well as disrupting activity and prosecuting perpetrators;
  • Parenting, family life, and services. Taking account of family circumstances in deciding how best to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people;
  • The rights of children and young people. Children and young people are entitled to be safeguarded from sexual exploitation just as agencies have duties in respect of safeguarding and promoting welfare;
  • Responsibility for criminal acts. Sexual exploitation of children and young people should not be regarded as criminal behaviour on the part of the child or young person, but as child sexual abuse. The responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children lies with the abuser and the focus of police investigations should be on those who coerce, exploit and abuse children and young people;
  • An integrated approach. Working Together to Safeguard Children sets out a tiered approach to safeguarding: universal, targeted and responsive. Within this, sexual exploitation requires a three-pronged approach tackling prevention, protection and prosecution;
  • A shared responsibility. The need for effective joint working between different agencies and professionals underpinned by a strong commitment from managers, a shared understanding of the problem of sexual exploitation and effective coordination by the Local Safeguarding Children Partnership.

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 causes significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for the child's family. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress. Siblings can feel alienated and their self-esteem affected. Family members can themselves suffer serious threats of abuse, intimidation and assault at the hands of 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 children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, forced marriage and those involved in gangs.

The majority of sexually exploited children are hidden from public view. They are unlikely to be loitering or soliciting on the streets. Research and practice has helped to move the understanding away from a narrow view of seeing sexual exploitation as a young person standing on a street corner selling sex.

There is also often 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.

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 particularly young people aged 17 and 18 may believe themselves to be acting voluntarily and will need practitioners to work with them so they can recognise that they are being sexually exploited.

Sexual exploitation 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.

What marks out exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.

Technology can play a part in sexual abuse, for example, through its 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. A common factor in all cases is the lack of free economic or moral choice.

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. Many adults involved in prostitution describe difficult childhood experiences that include domestic violence and abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, disrupted schooling and low educational attainment.

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, e.g. parks or shopping centres or sites on the Internet.

Work to tackle sexual exploitation should follow the same principles as addressing other forms of abuse or neglect.

The Government Guidance requires that all Local Safeguarding Children Partnerships (LSCP) should ensure their policies and procedures regarding sexual exploitation reflect their local areas. Particular procedures should specify:

  • How to identify signs of sexual exploitation;
  • How professionals can seek help and advice on this issue;
  • How professionals should share information within government guidelines;
  • The establishment of Lead Professionals in the key agencies, the routes for referring concerns and how concerns about sexual exploitation relate to thresholds for referral to Children's Social Care;
  • How professionals can work together to deliver disruption plans;
  • How professional can gather and preserve the integrity of evidence about perpetrators of sexual exploitation;
  • The process and possible responses for supporting children and young people identified at being at risk of sexual exploitation;
  • How to work with other local authority areas where children who have been sexually exploited are thought to have lived;
  • How to deal with issues relating to migrant children in situations which make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation;
  • How to manage situations of sexual exploitation through the use of technology such as the internet.

LSCPs should ensure there is a dedicated lead person in each partner organisation with responsibility for implementing the government guidance and that work in its area with children and young people who have been or are likely to be sexually exploited is coordinated.

All organisations that provide services for, or work with children, need to have arrangements in place which fulfil their commitment to safeguard and promote the welfare of children by ensuring that:

  • Safeguarding training and refresher training includes an awareness of sexual exploitation, how to identify the warning signs, together with the recording and retention of information and gathering evidence;
  • Their policies for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people are compatible with the LSCP policies and procedures;
  • Information sharing protocols are in place and working well so that relevant information is shared where this is in the best interest of the child.

The specific roles and responsibilities of individual agencies in implementing the government guidance are set out in Chapter 4 of the guidance.

The effects of sexual exploitation are harmful and far reaching and Chapter 5 of the Government Guidance looks at measures that may assist a local prevention strategy.

Prevention means that the risk that children and young people will become victims of sexual exploitation by:

  • Reducing their vulnerability;
  • Improving their resilience;
  • Disrupting and preventing the activities of perpetrators;
  • Reducing tolerance of exploitative behaviour;
  • Prosecuting abusers.

Prevention measures will include the development of education and awareness raising programmes for children and young people so that they can make safe and healthy choices about relationships and sexual health, as well as for parents and carers (particularly those responsible for children living away from home) and people whose work places them in a position where they would notice and could report worrying behaviours (e.g. shopkeepers, park attendants and hostel managers) who are not traditionally regarded as part of the safeguarding community.

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.

They should also know how to monitor online spaces and be prepared to request access reports where they are suspicious 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.

There is evidence from research to suggest that young people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to CSE than their non-disabled peers. The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex. All of the following elements are identified by the research as contributing to this increased vulnerability:

  • Impairment-related factors, including capacity to consent to sexual activity, lack of cognitive ability to recognise exploitation or risk, impulsive behaviours and needs associated with a different understanding of social interaction and communication;
  • Societal treatment of young people with learning disabilities, including overprotection, disempowerment, isolation and not seeing them as sexual beings, leading to little attention being given to informing them about healthy, sexual relationships;
  • A lack of knowledge, understanding and awareness of the sexual exploitation of young people with learning disabilities among professionals, parents and carers and the wider community;
  • The lack of training received by professionals addressing CSE and learning disabilities.

For more information, see Practice Guide: Supporting Professionals to Meet the Needs of Young People with Learning Disabilities who Experience, or are at Risk of, Child Sexual Exploitation. The factors below are recognised as factors linked to sexual exploitation. It is not an exhaustive list and each indicator is not in itself proof of involvement. Concerns should increase the more indicators that are present. They are:

  • Health - physical symptoms e.g. bruising, chronic fatigue, recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections; pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion; evidence of drug, alcohol or substance misuse; sexually risky behaviour;
  • Education - truancy; disengagement with education; considerable change in performance at school;
  • Emotional and behavioural development - volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language; involvement in petty crime; secretive behaviour; entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • Identity - low self-image; low self-esteem; self-harm; eating disorder; promiscuity;
  • Family and social relationships - hostility in relationship with parents, carers and/or other family members; physical aggressions towards parents, siblings, pets, teachers or peers; placement breakdown; detachment from age appropriate activities; association with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited; sexual relationship with a significantly older person; unexplained relationships with older adults (e.g. through letters, texts, internet links); staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation; persistently missing or missing with no known home base; returning after having been missing looking well cared for with no known home base; going missing and being found in an area where the child has no known links;
  • Social presentation - change in appearance; leaving home in clothing unusual for the child e.g. inappropriate for age;
  • Parental capacity - family history of parental neglect or abuse;
  • Family and environmental factors - family history of domestic violence and abuse; pattern of homelessness;
  • Income - 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;
  • Family's social integration - reports that the child has been seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation.

Possible indicators specific to boys and young men are:

  • Health - physical symptoms (e.g. bruising or sexually transmitted infections); drug or alcohol misuse; self-harm or eating disorders;
  • Education - truancy, deterioration of school work or part-time timetable;
  • Emotional and behavioural development - secretive e.g. about internet use; anti-social behaviour; sexualised language; sexually offending behaviour;
  • Family and social relationships - associating with other children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation; missing from home or staying out late; getting into cares of unknown people; contact with adults outside normal social group;
  • Identity - low self-esteem, poor self-image or lack of confidence;
  • Social presentation - wearing an unusual amount of clothing;
  • Income - social activities with no explanation of how funded; possession of abnormal amounts of money, gifts, new mobile phones, credit on mobile phone, number of SIM cards;
  • Social integration - frequenting known high-risk areas or going to addresses of concern; seen at public toilets known for cottaging; seen at adult venues.

As in all cases, concerns that a child may be at risk of sexual exploitation should be discussed with a manager and/or designated professional for safeguarding and a decision made as to whether there should be a referral to Children's Social Care.

The wishes and feelings of the child or young person should be obtained when deciding how to proceed but practitioners should be aware that perpetrators may have groomed the child's responses and that the child may be denying what is happening.

Where an agency is fearful of losing the engagement of a child or young person by reporting their concern to Children's Social Care, the agency should discuss this with Children's Social Care to agree a way forward. Any decision not to share information or refer a child should be recorded with a full explanation of the rationale behind that decision and the prevailing circumstances at that time. This will assist in future if there is a review of the case and the decision-making processes.

See also Data Protection, Information Sharing and Confidentiality Policy

A child or young person who is suspected of suffering or being at risk of suffering sexual exploitation will by definition be a child who may be a Child in Need under the Children Act 1989 and should be referred to Children's Social Care under the Making Referrals to Children's Social Care Procedure.

Children's Social Care and the Police should consult and share information concerning incidents or suspicions of sexual exploitation within 24 hours. A decision should be made whether a criminal offence has been committed against a child or young person.

The child's individual needs and circumstances must be carefully assessed, including issues of ethnicity, gender, culture, disability, religion and sexual orientation.

Where a decision to prosecute has been taken, the priority must be to investigate and prosecute those who abuse, coerce or groom children into sexual exploitation.

Specific action during the assessment of a child who has been sexually exploited should include obtaining relevant information from professionals in contact with the child and those who have expertise in working with children and young people involved in sexual exploitation.

The Strategy Discussion should decide whether the criteria for initiating a Section 47 Enquiry are met and, if necessary, plan the enquiry.

Children's Social Care should consider the involvement of the professionals with specialist experience in sexual exploitation in the Strategy Discussion.

N.B. A Section 47 Enquiry must be undertaken if at any stage:

  • There is reasonable evidence that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, Significant Harm; or
  • The child is in Police Protection; or
  • The child is the subject of an Emergency Protection Order.

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 find where the child is.

Such children will need placements with carers who have experience of building trusting relationships and skills at containing young people.

A decision to place a child or young person in secure accommodation should only be considered in extreme circumstances, when they are at grave risk of Significant Harm. In cases where the child is under the age of 13, the approval of the Secretary of State must be sought.

Agencies should recognise that there may be a strong relationship between the child and the coercer/abuser and it may be difficult for the child to break this relationship.

A strategy should therefore be developed, with the child and family wherever possible, to address the child's needs and help him or her to move on from the exploitative situation. It could include specialist therapeutic support, mentoring to assist a return to education or employment, outreach work, help to secure appropriate health services, and assistance to develop a positive network of friends and relatives.

The particular circumstances of the child should of course be taken into account in developing the multi agency response and the plan for services should be tailored to meet their specific needs, e.g. whether they are Looked After and/or preparing to leave care, not receiving a suitable education, often missing from home or care, may have been trafficked and/or may be affected by gang activity.

Parents should be engaged in this process unless they are implicated in the sexual exploitation.

Annex C of the Government Guidance contains information (and a diagram) about service provision. This is intended to assist professionals to decide what types of intervention and supportive action will be required for children and young people at any given time.

Identifying, disrupting and prosecuting perpetrators is a key part of work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from sexual exploitation.

While the police and criminal justice agencies lead on this, the support of all partners in gathering and recording information/evidence is vital. All those involved in caring for a child who is suspected to be at risk of sexual exploitation should continually gather, record and share information, as appropriate, to this end. Parents and carers should be encouraged and supported to do so, ensuring that information is recorded in such a way that it can be used by the Crown Prosecution Service and accepted in Court.

Where a young person wants and is able to be part of a prosecution, it is essential that they are supported through this process and after the prosecution has taken place. Many of the issues facing young victims and witnesses are addressed in a CPS 2006 Policy document on prosecuting cases involving children and young people as victims and witnesses.

There is a range of criminal offences that perpetrators may have committed, e.g. under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Immigration offences may also be relevant, as well as drugs offences, tax evasion or benefit fraud. Annex A of the Government Guidance sets out details of the legislative framework.

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. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has extended the definition of Position of Trust within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 section 22A to include anyone who coaches, teaches, trains, supervises or instructs a child under 18, on a regular basis, in a sport or a religion. It is against the law for someone in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if that child is over the age of consent (16 or over).

IMPACT Nominal Index (INI) is a new police-led information management system. It enables an investigator in one police force to identify which other police force holds relevant information on a given individual and is available to assist in the protection of children and young people from sexual exploitation.

In addition the National Offender Management Service, whose focus is the management and supervision of offenders, can assist to ensure that offenders are managed so as to protect children from sexual exploitation by maintaining awareness of the indicators set out in Section 6.1, Identification of Risk and Possible Indicators of this chapter.

All ten LSCPs have worked together to develop a consistent way to measure the level of risk CSE poses to an individual. Having a single way of defining when a child is at 'high', 'medium' or 'lower' risk of CSE will allow partners to develop a better perspective on the prevalence and nature of CSE across the boroughs and to provide a more consistent and appropriate service to the young people at risk of, or experiencing, CSE. If used consistently it is hoped this 'measurement of risk' tool will allow teams to measure whether the risk to a young person is increasing or decreasing and so put effective measures in place to try to manage this.

Click here to view Appendix A: Child Sexual Exploitation Measurement Tool.

In Manchester, see also the Manchester Multi-Agency Exploitation Screening Tool – this covers all types of exploitation including, but not limited to, sexual exploitation.

Last Updated: June 17, 2024