What is child exploitation?
Child exploitation is complex, takes a variety of forms and doesn’t neatly fit into categories. In general, child exploitation occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of a power imbalance to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into criminal or sexual activity or modern slavery. This can be in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, this is most likely to be the result of grooming, where a criminal has identified what a young person may want or need.
The power imbalance can be through a range of factors, including age, gender, cognitive ability, status, and access to economic or other resources. A young person may also experience poor mental health, have experienced bereavement or are being bullied which may make them more likely to be vulnerable to exploitation.
The victim may have been exploited even if the activity appears consensual, and exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through technology.
All those working with children and young people must be clear that exploitation is never the child’s fault, even if some form of exchange has taken place (for example, if the young person has received payment, gifts, a relationship or status in return). All children and young people have a right to be safe and protected from harm.
Child criminal exploitation (CCE)
CCE activity can include children ‘being forced to work in cannabis factories, being coerced into moving drugs or money across the country, forced to shoplift or pickpocket, or to threaten other young people.’
One of the most common types of CCE activity is ‘county lines’. This involves ‘organised drug dealing networks that exploit children and vulnerable adults to move, hold and sell drugs across the UK using dedicated phone lines to take orders’. Exploitation is a key component of the business model and gangs use children because they are ‘cheaper, more easily controlled and less likely to get picked up by the police.’ More local carrying of drugs, across the same borough or district is also increasingly seen by councils and partners.
Children can be exploited as ‘runners’ (transporting drugs) but they may also undertake other roles such as cutting and bagging drugs, collecting debts or experience the ‘cuckooing’ of properties. Cuckooing involves taking over the home of a vulnerable person in a supply area to use it as a base for drug dealing.
Modern slavery comprises part of the wider picture around child criminal exploitation.
Modern slavery is ‘the recruitment, movement, harbouring or receiving of children, women or men through the use of force, coercion, abuse of vulnerability, deception or other means for the purpose of exploitation.’
The Local Government Association (LGA) has produced two comprehensive resources to support councils and individual councillors to tackle modern slavery. These are referenced in the ‘further information and resources’ section.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE)
There are different types of CSE that range from the sending of sexual images online to being forced to have sex in order to pay for protection or a debt. It can take place in person or via technology, and can occur without a young person’s knowledge, for example through others copying images they have created and posting them on social media.
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or nonpenetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing, and touching outside clothing. It may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in the production of sexual images, forcing children to look at sexual images or watch sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).
Child sexual exploitation can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years, including 16 and 17 year olds who can legally consent to have sex. This is in part due to potential imbalance of power.