Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

Tackling child exploitation: resources pack

Tackling child exploitation resources pack front cover
As local leaders and community representatives, councillors have responsibilities to help protect children in their area. Being aware of the signs of child exploitation, understanding what to do if you have concerns and knowing what questions to be asking of local services is key. This resources pack explores this, and showcases innovative work going on around the country to prevent child exploitation.


Child exploitation is a serious and growing crime. While the exploitation of children by criminals has, sadly, been happening for a long time, the ways in which it has evolved and the increasing risks to children and young people mean that barely a week goes past without a devastating new story reaching the headlines.

This resource pack covers both child criminal and sexual exploitation - crimes that are prevalent in all of our communities. Young children are being drawn into exploitative situations, and while our most vulnerable children, including those who have been excluded from school or are in care, are most at risk, we know that children who are ‘under the radar’ are also now being targeted due to their anonymity with authorities.

The effects of child exploitation can be devastating and have a profound impact on children for the rest of their lives. Councils have a key role to play in tackling child exploitation head on, from awareness-raising and staff training, to prevention and support for children who have been victims. They cannot do this alone. Close working with partners including the police, NHS and schools is vital if areas are to have the right systems in place to prevent and disrupt the criminal activity putting children and young people at risk.

Understanding, hearing, and designing services with young people who have been affected by exploitation is essential, as is working with parents and carers. Children and young people are unlikely to see their experience as ‘criminal exploitation’ or ‘sexual exploitation’ and our response needs to consider the holistic needs of the child and their family.

All councillors have responsibilities, as local leaders and community representatives, to help protect children in their area. Being aware of the signs of child exploitation is key, as is understanding what to do if you have concerns and knowing what questions to be asking of local services. This pack outlines some of those issues, along with case studies showcasing just some of the innovative work already going on around the country to prevent and disrupt child exploitation. I hope that you find it helpful as you work to keep children safe where you live.

Councillor Anntoinette Bramble

Chair, LGA Children and Young People Board

1. Introduction

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.’[1]

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’.[2]

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.’[3] 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.’[4]

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)[5].

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.

Children at risk

Exploitation can affect any child but there are some children who may be at greater risk than others:

  • Children in care – these children may be particularly vulnerable because of the situations and experiences that led to them to being brought into care. They may also be impacted by being in care, particularly if they are placed in a new environment away from their normal support networks, or out of area[6].
  • Children who have been excluded from school or are in alternative provision– young people may feel disenfranchised which can make them an easy target for perpetrators. Short timetables or no schooling can also offer opportunities for exploitation. At times, a young person may also be experiencing grooming which leads to disruptive behaviour and then exclusion.
  • Children living in poverty – who may be groomed through offers of material possessions or for money for themselves or their family due to financial concerns.
  • Children with special educational needs and disabilities – this may be due to increased vulnerabilities but also due to not recognising exploitation, or not being able to access support.[7]

  • Children who are not UK citizens or do not have immigration status – the precariousness of their immigration status is an additional vulnerability that enables gangs to target them.
  • Family connection – some children have family members who are involved in criminal activity and therefore fall into exploitation through running errands to support their family. In other cases, young people’s families are threatened if the young person does not cooperate with perpetrators.
  • Young people not already known to authorities - who may be from affluent backgrounds and not deemed as ‘vulnerable’. Gangs are increasingly targeting these groups because they are under the radar and less likely to attract attention from authorities.
  • Children with poor mental health and wellbeing – children and young people with poor emotional wellbeing, low esteem, have experienced bereavement or are being bullied are also more likely to be vulnerable.
  • Children in proximity to an exploiterchildren and young people who have none of the above factors but are in proximity to someone who is seeking to exploit children.

Children with prior experience of neglect or abuse, who lack a stable home environment, or who experience social difficulties may also be more vulnerable.

The presence, or lack, of protective factors in child’s life, including the support a child can get from their family or local community can impact the likelihood they are involved in exploitation. In most cases, strong family relationships are a protective factor for young people, however in the case of criminal exploitation these relationships can themselves be a risk factor.[8]

Places where children are groomed into being exploited include, but are not limited to, schools, further/higher education establishments, special needs schools, foster homes, community places like local parks or homeless shelters.[9] 

It is important to remember that not all children with these vulnerabilities will experience exploitation, and exploitation can occur with none of these vulnerabilities being present.

Challenges with identifying child exploitation

Sometimes child exploitation is difficult to identify:

  • The child may not readily identify themselves as a victim. They may be in denial or scared as they could still be being coerced or they believe that their exploiter is their friend, or partner, who cares for and supports them.
  • Children may not be able to fully express that they have been a victim of exploitation, or a practitioner does not have the skills to communicate with the child eg. if they have a special educational need or disability.
  • Understanding of child exploitation is changing and there may be a perception from professionals that children have chosen to engage in criminal activity and this impacts the professionals’ response.
  • A professional may also not understand signs of exploitation or a child being groomed as it can be presented differently.

Indicators of child sexual exploitation can sometimes be mistaken for ‘normal’ adolescent behaviour, which means it can be difficult to identify and assess. Even where a young person is old enough to legally consent to sexual activity, consent is only valid if they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. If they are under the influence of substances or fearful of the consequences of saying no, consent cannot legally be given, no matter what the age of the child. There are also incidences where children may become dependent on their abusers through financial debt, emotional coercion or being manipulated into believing they are in a relationship which also means that they cannot give free consent.

How young people are exploited

There are various ways in which children and young people are groomed for exploitation. Many perpetrators are skilled at identifying and targeting vulnerabilities, infiltrating social networks and isolating young people from protective influences. This can include the following:

  • Grooming by criminal gangs – perpetrators spend a lot of time and energy building relationships with their victims, for example showing an interest in their life or buying them things that they want or need. They will be building up a picture on how useful the young person is likely to be and how they might be able to help the criminal network.
  • Grooming by technology – perpetrators can use digital technology to target, groom and exploit young people. For example, through social media, or targeting through YouTube, the latter has been used by county lines gangs.
  • Grooming by peers – older family members or friends who are already involved in exploitative activity can target younger relatives and friends as a way of enlarging the network. There may also be cases where abused children are forced to bring in other children.
  • Grooming by trusted groups – perpetrators can be part of sports clubs, religious organisations and use this as an opportunity to build up trust with young people.

Grooming can take place over a short or a long period of time, and will generally involve someone building a relationship through trust and an emotional connection with the young person. This can be a romantic relationship, or that of a mentor or authority figure. As a result, the young person may not understand that they have been groomed, and they may have complicated feelings like loyalty and love as well as fear and distress.[10]

The Children’s Society[11] outlines four stages of recruitment for child criminal exploitation, with aspects applying to child sexual exploitation:

  • targeting – identifying a vulnerable young person and gaining their trust
  • experience – including a young person in activities, offering them protection and a sense of belonging, testing their loyalties and skills
  • hooked – making the young person feel part of the gang, including taking on more responsibilities and being made to feel more powerful (even though this may not be reality)
  • trapped – when the young person feels dependent on the group, the exploiter’s true intents may be revealed, including through threatening behaviour, violence, humiliation and blackmail.

Signs of child exploitation

According to the Home Office, there are some behavioural changes that children or young people may display.[12] The following may help to identify a child or young person who is being exploited:

  • persistently going missing from school or home
  • regularly being found out of the home area
  • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes or mobile phone
  • excessive receipt of texts/phone calls
  • relationship with controlling / older adults
  • leaving home and care without explanation
  • suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
  • gang association and isolation from peers or social networks
  • significant decline in school results and performance
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing.[13]

Councils and their partners will need to be aware that a child’s (or a young person’s) behaviour, including offending behaviour, should be seen in the context of wider vulnerabilities and unresolved issues such as trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues or substance misuse.

Effects of child exploitation

The effects of exploitation can be devastating and it may take a child or young person some time to come to terms what has happened to them. It is likely to have a significant impact on their physical health, mental health and wellbeing, educational outcomes and employment prospects and their relationships with family and friends.

Councils have a key role in identifying support as early as possible to help children and young people escape and recover from the exploitation that they have suffered.  Family members are also likely to be impacted by their child’s experience and councils should consider what support they may need for their own mental health and wellbeing and to rebuild relationships, as well as practical support. 

Who are the perpetrators of exploitation?

As noted above, exploitation can be carried out by a wide range of offenders, from individuals through to gangs and organised networks and groups.

Some young people can be both victims and ‘perpetrators’ of exploitation, such as when a young person has been groomed and then ‘recruits’ their friends or family members.

Authorities are becoming increasingly aware of blurred lines, where gangs stop using certain young people because their vulnerability is attracting attention, and these young people then use the knowledge they have acquired to establish their own local drug dealing networks.’ [14]

These issues all make tackling child exploitation both difficult and sensitive, and councils will need to work with their partners to understand local situations and to ensure that young people are appropriately supported even where they initially come to the attention of authorities through criminal activity. The face and nature of exploitation is changing over time. For example, it has come to more recent attention regarding exploitation by organised groups such as sport or religious facilities.

Councils should also work with their partners to plan for disruption or prevention work in earlier stages. Disruption should be done and planned for whilst safeguarding support is offered to the young person.

Representative practice

Local authorities need to be aware that some groups may be over or under-represented in their care and how these groups can be best supported and heard by practitioners. Race or ethnicity is not a cause or contributing factor to child exploitation, but due to the response from practitioners, can result in a disparity in recognition and response[15].

Although there continues to be limited research looking at the experiences of ethnic minorities and child sexual abuse, recent reports[16] have shown that cultural stereotypes and racism can lead to failures on the part of institutions and professionals to identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse. They can also make it more difficult for individuals in ethnic minority communities to disclose and speak up about child sexual abuse.

Looking at data from the twelve months to March 2017, the Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime in London’s Knife Crime Strategy highlights that 6 in 10 young male victims were recorded as being from BAME backgrounds. Almost half of young male victims of knife crime were of black ethnicity. School exclusion can lead to, or be caused by, criminal exploitation and as Black Caribbean children are disproportionately excluded[17], they are more likely to be exploited.

Furthermore, children with additional needs may be more at risk of exploitation and abuse. This may be because they are less able to recognise what is abuse, communicate with practitioners or be reliant on their abuser[18].

Evidence of what works includes; peer support from other victims and survivors[19],">creative outreach responses

and awareness training[20] and a ‘

culturally competent’ workforce[21].

2. Local authority responsibilities


Councils have a duty under the Children Act 2004 to work with local police and health partners to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area. Local authority children’s services departments are responsible for carrying out assessments of children deemed at risk of significant harm,[22] and working with partners to put in place plans to keep children safe where necessary.

If a child has been being exploited, there may be a need for close collaboration across areas if this has taken place across borders, for example in the case of county lines.

There are Safeguarding Partners in each area who will work collaboratively to strengthen the child protection and safeguarding system in the local area. They will consist of the local authority, the clinical commissioning group (CCG) for any area that falls under the LA, and the chief officer of police for any area that falls under the LA.

Children in care / care leavers

As corporate parents, councils are responsible for supporting and advocating for their children in care and care leavers. They will need to ensure that these children and young people are fully supported if they are at risk of exploitation, including ensuring they are in appropriate accommodation.

Missing children

Councils have a responsibility for preventing children from going missing, and safeguarding and protecting them when they do.  There should be an up-to-date local Runaway and Missing from Home and Care Protocol (RMFHC), and all children who go missing should be offered an independent return home interview. Analysis of these interviews should be considered by local safeguarding partners to identify any patterns or emerging issues. Any child who appears to be a victim of exploitation should be supported through safeguarding arrangements.

Public health

Councils are also responsible for promoting health and wellbeing in their local areas through working in partnership on Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) and sharing information and intelligence as part of the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA). Councils can look at child exploitation as part of supporting wider health and wellbeing strategic priorities such as ensuring that children and young people feel safe in their local community, and considering action to tackle the use of illegal drugs.

Crime and disorder

Section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998[23] stipulates that local authorities must work with partners to develop a community safety strategy that reflects priorities in their local area around tackling crime and disorder.  

Councils should also work with their Police and Crime Commissioner, including through the Police and Crime Panel which is responsible for scrutinising local police and crime plans.

As part of the 2009 regulations[24] councils should have established arrangements in place to carry out scrutiny of arrangements to tackle crime and disorder issues, which can include work on child exploitation. Scrutiny committees can also establish relationships with Police and Crime Panels to look at children exploitation issues across a region. The Centre for Public Scrutiny has produced guidance on how this could work in practice. (see further information and resources).

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is going through Parliament in 2021. This introduces duties for public bodies such as councils, police, health and education to tackle and prevent serious violent crime. The LGA has produced a report for councils to consider public health approaches to tackling violence (see further information and resources).

Modern slavery

Where someone is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery, they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which investigates each case and ensures support for victims. Councils are designated ‘first responders’ and can therefore make referrals to the NRM.  Section 48 of the MSA has made provision for Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTGs) who provide independent advice and support for child victims. The Government has committed to the national roll out of ICTGs, which are currently available in a third of local authority areas, with more areas included from January 2021. Children referred to the NRM should receive support through children’s social care to ensure that they are safe while waiting for a decision.

The Home Office is currently piloting devolved decision-making for children referred to the NRM to speed up decision-making and ensure children get the support they need swiftly. An evaluation of the pilots is expected in Summer 2022.

Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) provides a statutory defence for victims of modern slavery who have been forced to commit crimes such as selling illegal drugs, but this does not apply to more serious crimes, such as violent or sexual offences and there must be proof of a direct link to exploitation.

3. Key guidance and reports

Working Together to Safeguard children: a guide for inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children 2018

This guidance outlines the responsibilities of councils and partners in relation to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.  The guidance applies to all organisations and agencies who have functions relating to children, including all councils, NHS, police, education, faith-based organisations and sports clubs.

Child criminal exploitation

Serious Violence Strategy 2018

This Home Office strategy focuses on law enforcement and intervening early as a means of discouraging young people to engage in violence. There are four key elements to the strategy: 

  • tackling county lines and misuse of drugs
  • early intervention and prevention
  • supporting communities and local partnerships
  • law enforcement and the criminal justice response[25]

The Youth Endowment Fund

  • The Fund was introduced in 2019 with a £200m endowment and a 10 year mandate from the Home Office
  • This is to prevent young people from getting involved in crime and identifies areas of good practice to share the learning across the country[26].

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance, 2020[27]

The Home Office has produced a brief practical guidance aimed at practitioners that highlights definitions for child exploitation and county lines and who is affected by it. The guidance also has some case studies and some useful checklists of signs to look out for there are any concerns and what to do if child exploitation has been identified.

County lines exploitation practice guidance for YOTs and frontline practitioners, December 2019[28]

This guidance provides clear referral pathways for frontline practitioners to follow nationally and use as a best practice template, when responding to, and safeguarding children involved in county lines.

  • Internal Police Referral Pathways
  • Safeguarding Referral Pathways for Children
  • The National Referral Mechanism (NRM)

It was hard to escape: safeguarding children at risk from criminal exploitation – The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel[29]

  • The first national review that aims to identify what might be done differently by practitioners to improve approaches to protecting children who find themselves threatened with violence and serious harm by criminal gangs.
  • The report outlines a practice framework that should provide a more comprehensive approach at the point when a child has been identified as being at risk of criminal exploitation.
  • Key learning points for local agencies, as well as questions and challenges for safeguarding partnerships.

Child sexual exploitation

Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, Home Office, 2021[30]

A national strategy to tackle child sexual abuse with three key objectives:

  • Tackling all forms of child abuse and bringing offenders to justice
  • Preventing offending and re-offending
  • Protecting and safeguarding all children and young people, and supporting all victims and survivors.

Group based child sexual exploitation: characteristics of Offending, 2020[31]

The paper lists the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation, which was prompted by high profile cases of sexual grooming in towns including Rochdale and Rotherham.

Time to listen: a joined up response to Child Sexual Exploitation and Missing Children, 2016[32]

This report outlines the key findings of joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) carried out by Ofsted, CQC, HMIC and HM Inspectorate of Probation investigating responses to child sexual exploitation. The findings of the report highlight that for local areas to improve their effectiveness in tackling CSE, there needs to be:

  • a shared understanding of CSE
  • better sharing of information and intelligence
  • more proactive awareness-raising of CSE; and
  • an improved understanding of children who go missing.

Professionals also needed the time and capacity to build trusted relationships with young people.

Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking, and modern slavery: an addendum, 2018[33]

Following on from the ‘Time to Listen’ report, further inspections took place with a focus on child exploitation and modern slavery. The addendum makes several observations and recommendations to further support local areas who are grappling with the complexity of tackling child exploitation and county lines:

  • all children are vulnerable to exploitation
  • there needs to be a whole systems approach to awareness-raising and engagement from a wide range of agencies, who should be working in partnership with parents and children to alert them to the signs of grooming, exploitation and county lines and disrupting criminal activity.
  • ensuring that each partnership agency is purposefully contributing to tackling child exploitation through sharing intelligence and data. Partnership across larger geographical areas may need to be forged as ‘large urban areas may need to be linked strategically and operationally with regions into which children are trafficked to sell drugs.’[34]

  • ensuring that there is comprehensive training and information for professionals who work with vulnerable children.

The addendum also highlights that lessons must be learnt from things that have gone wrong or haven’t worked well in the past.

Child sexual exploitation: definition and a guide for practitioners, Department for Education, February 2017

The guidance provides:

  • a summary of key CSE definitions
  • children most likely to be impacted by CSE including those with increased vulnerabilities
  • signs of what to look out for
  • the long-term implications of CSE and examples of different forms of CSE.

The guidance highlights the importance of strategic leadership of the CSE agenda, the need for proactive multi-agency working and making sure that CSE is considered in the context of wider forms of exploitation.

Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery: Statutory guidance for local authorities

The guidance is aimed at supporting local councils to support unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery/trafficking. 

The report identifies that strong and cohesive local multi-agency partnership arrangements with clearly understood roles and protocols are essential in protecting child victims of modern slavery from any further risk and preventing exploitation. Councils should consider specialist training for those working with UASC and ensure that procedures are in place to ensure access to specialist legal advice and interpreters for those children who need them.

Modern slavery: statutory and non-statutory guidance[35]

Provides guidance to those who may come into contact with those who have experienced modern slavery.

Child exploitation disruption toolkit[36]

The toolkit provides an overview of the different forms of legislation to address:

  • abduction and trafficking
  • sexual offences
  • victim care
  • unusual or harmful behaviour
  • locations of specific concern.

It also provides a range of strategies and interventions that councils and their partners may want to use in order disrupt child exploitation.

Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse

The CSA Centre is an independent body that works closely with key partners from academic institutions, local authorities, health, education, police and the voluntary sector and carries out research to better understand CSE including its causes, scope, scale and impact.  The Centre has produced several reports that highlight key messages on different elements of CSE including:

  • identifying and responding to CSE
  • looked after children and CSE
  • institutional CSE
  • children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour
  • intra-familial child sexual abuse.

These can be found on their website at

Research in practice – Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme

The Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme aims to support local areas to develop an effective strategic response to child exploitation and risk of harm from outside the family home – ‘extra-familial harm’. This covers child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation, including county lines drug trafficking and modern slavery.

Key lines of inquiry

What is the nature and extent of child exploitation in your area?

Child exploitation is complex and continually changing; having a good understanding of what is happening and how can help considerably with tackling the issue. It is not necessarily always helpful to distinguish between different types of exploitation, eg county lines, drug running and criminal exploitation. The issues are not linear and the response of partners needs to recognise this.

You will want to ensure that your council and its partners have a good understanding of:

  • what forms of child exploitation are most prevalent
  • the experiences of victims identified in the area
  • the profile of offenders and people posing risk to children
  • specific locations causing concern
  • particular periods when children are more at risk
  • emerging risks.

There is a wide range of data available to support local planning and understanding of risk, including around school exclusions, children who run away or go missing, youth offending and child protection. Check that systems and processes are in place to collect and analyse data about child exploitation, whether these are working effectively, and how intelligence is shared between partners, neighbouring authorities and agencies such as the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre.

How effective are partnership arrangements to tackle child exploitation?

In order to effectively tackle child exploitation, strong partnership working between a range of agencies is essential, in addition to safeguarding arrangements, for example Health and Wellbeing Boards and community safety partnerships. Clear local multi-agency strategies and systems need to be in place so that children being exploited or at risk of exploitation get a timely response:

  • Find out what the local strategic and operational partnership arrangements are in your local area for tackling child exploitation, and how well these partnerships are working.
  • What role is the safeguarding partnership taking in responding to child exploitation?
  • Are they taking into consideration information received from the local community, internal audit, and external inspections? What does it tell you?
  • Is there a joint strategy in place to tackle child exploitation?

Multi-agency training and awareness-raising should be accessible to all professionals who come into contact or work with potentially vulnerable children. Find out who coordinates this, who can access it and how often it is refreshed.

  • Speak to teams, do they feel they are appropriately trained? Are they able to work effectively across organisations?
  • What are the information sharing arrangements locally between different agencies? Such as the police, social care, health, education, and voluntary sector. How well does the information sharing process work?

The nature of child exploitation means that it is not always confined to one local area. County lines, for example, may see a young person travelling many miles from home. Councils and partners will therefore need to work across local boundaries, developing systems, processes and relationships to support children who have been exploited to return home; for return home interviews to take place swiftly and for actions arising from these meetings to be quickly addressed.  Find out about your cross-boundaries arrangements and consider how well are they working.

What approach has been put in place?

There is a range of good practice approaches adopted across the country to support practitioners and partners to respond to the increasing complexity of safeguarding children and adults.

These are approaches to understanding and responding to young people’s experiences of harm beyond their families, including relationships in the community, schools and online. Children’s social care practitioners will need to engage with individuals and sectors who have influence over or within these extra-familial contexts, and recognise that assessment or, and intervention with, these spaces are critical.[37]

How well is this approach working? Do practitioners have access to the resources they need, including time for and access to training, to make the most of the chosen approach?

What can we do to tackle child exploitation?

Raising awareness

Raising awareness of child exploitation has the potential to disrupt or prevent exploitation.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • How are professionals, including council staff such as those working in parks, stakeholders and members of the public being made aware of the signs of child exploitation, and what to do if they have suspicions?
  • Are you working with those who may be able to spot the signs, such as taxi drivers or those working in food outlets?

The National Crime Agency has produced guidance to support councils to identify and support victims of child exploitation that highlights the need for frontline workers in all service directorates including housing, planning, trading standards being able to recognise the signs of child exploitation and to know what procedures to follow to ensure that victims of child exploitation and their families are offered support in a timely way.

Consider also how young people themselves are being made aware, both to be alert to dangers for themselves, but also to recognise signs amongst their friends.

There are a number of ways awareness can be raised, from marketing campaigns to drama productions, social media and word of mouth.

  • Find out what has been the most successful and why, and what hasn’t worked as well. Young people themselves may have ideas about raising awareness.
  • Find out to what extent young people are involved with shaping and influencing initiatives to raise awareness of child exploitation.

Preventative and disruptive activities

Consider also the preventative activity taking place, including the local youth offer, supporting young people to have relationships with trusted adults, and supporting them to engage in positive activities such as arts, sport or mentoring.

The government has recently produced a disruption toolkit[38] to support practitioners with an array of strategies and interventions to tackle child exploitation.

  • Find out how the disruption toolkit is being used in your area.
  • How is local intelligence about child exploitation being used to inform prevention and disruption strategies?
  • Preventative activities should be part of the early help approach, supporting those at risk of exploitation and targeting perpetrators.
  • How well does disruption activity against the perpetrators of child exploitation work?

What can you learn from other councils and their partners about tackling child exploitation? We have included a range of good practice examples at the end of this document.

How are we supporting our children in care to stay safe?

Children in care can be more at risk of exploitation than their peers due to their additional vulnerabilities including previous trauma, placement moves or changes of social worker.

  • Have your foster carers, residential care workers and social workers been trained to recognise the signs of exploitation?

Children who are placed out of area (that is, beyond the council boundary) may feel isolated in an unfamiliar environment and therefore be particularly susceptible to exploitation.

  • How many children in care do you have placed out of area, and how effectively are risks assessed and mitigated?
  • Police forces have raised particular concerns about young people placed out of area in unregulated settings – if your council uses this type of setting, how is the quality and suitability of the setting checked?
  • What assessment has been made of the accommodation and support needs of children in care now and going forward, and the extent to which these can be met?

As corporate parents, councils should ensure that children have access to the help they need, while also considering what steps need to be put in place to avoid more children being exploited. Corporate parenting panels will wish to consider data from return home interviews where children have gone missing, and information about where children are being placed. 

How are the voices of children and young people heard?

Victims of exploitation should be central to service development and design across the partnership and it is important to consider how and where the voices of children and young people are being heard. Some young people may not recognise that they have been exploited or may be unwilling to talk about their experiences.

  • Are the experiences of children who have been exploited informing practice and service design?
  • What lessons can be learned from the experiences of victims of exploitation?
  • Is there a specialist organisation available to support and advocate for young people?
  • How is the voice of young people who may need help to articulate their experiences, including those with special educational needs or those with English as an additional language, being heard?

What support is available to young people who have been exploited, and their families/carers? 

Listening to children and young people about their experiences is key to providing them with the support they need. Professionals will need to show curiosity and compassion when working with young people, and be given the time to build trusted relationships with them. Being a victim of child exploitation can have a devastating impact for both the young person, their families and friends. Councils are well placed to provide support, advice and guidance to victims and their families in a variety of ways including:

  • Exercising their statutory safeguarding role to ensure that a child or young person is safe.
  • Commissioning specialist victim support services from national/local organisations such as Barnardo’s, the St Giles Trust, the Children’s Society, NSPCC.
  • Ensuring that information that can support young victims and their families are readily available such as victim support webpages / local groups.
  • Consider also what support is available for young people with additional needs.
  • What services are available for vulnerable adults who were known to be exploited previously?

What do you know about how these services are accessed and used, and what further support could be provided to ensure that victims of exploitation can come to terms with and overcome the trauma of what they have experienced?

The evaluation of Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTGs) pilot indicates that this service has worked well to support children who have been exploited.[39]

  • Are ICTGs operating in your area and if so, what has been your local experience? If not, are there lessons you can learn from the early adopter areas until ICTGs are introduced in your area?

Victims of child exploitation may also need access to specialist support, including mental health support to help them come to terms with what has happened to them. Find out whether your local child and adolescent mental health service has enough capacity to offer support to victims.

  • How is this service being used?
  • Does your council have any dedicated workers who can help support young people and their families in the aftermath of child exploitation? This may be particularly important as some young people may not readily identify themselves as victims.
  • Is there any support that parents/carers can access to support them in their own right and resources to help them support their children?

Victims of child exploitation could also be ‘perpetrators’ of crime and be under investigation by the Police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Find out to what extent there are ‘blurred lines’ cases in your areas. What support is provided to young victims who may be on the receiving end of the criminal justice system? Do they know where to go to access victim support information? What services are in place to help them to recover from their own exploitation and to prevent behaviour escalating in the future?

Training and processes

Research by the Children’s Society has shown that ‘age, gender, ethnicity and background can all affect the way in which professionals do or don’t recognise children as victims, or at risk of child exploitation.[40]

  • What support is given to professionals to identify and offer support to victims?
  • Has there been an assessment of equality and diversity issues in your area and are there any issues to be addressed?
  • How is your council ensuring that support to victims is inclusive?
  • What systems and processes does your council has in place for dealing with complex cases (such as ‘blurred lines’)?
  • What training is in place to support staff to understand the modern slavery framework and legal obligations on the referral to the national referral mechanism.

Find out to what extent front-line workers know what to do to ensure that victims are supported.

  • What pathways are in place to ensure that victims of child exploitation get support in a timely way?
  • Do children and young people know where to go to get support?

4. Case studies

Rochdale Borough Council

Significant numbers of young people and vulnerable adults were identified as part of a Greater Manchester Police operation (led by the Rochdale Challenger Team) as being criminally exploited by members of an organised crime group involved in dealing Class A and B drugs. The young people and adults involved were being threatened and coerced into handling, bagging up, and dealing drugs, for the benefit of the organised crime group’s enterprise. The initial investigation identified over 30 children that were in contact with the gang following analysis of mobile phones.

At the time of the investigation Rochdale had an established multi-agency team (Sunrise) specialising in working with young people at risk of or experiencing child sexual exploitation. Given the evident increasing risk of child criminal exploitation the team was developed into a Complex Safeguarding Team that focuses on the exploitation and modern slavery of children; consisting of specialist Police Officers and Detectives, social workers, a specialist CSE Nurse, parenting workers (council and voluntary sector), and a psychotherapist.

The multi-agency nature of the team enables a holistic response in safeguarding children and prosecuting offenders – actively tackling the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults through collaborative working. The team focuses on ensuring that young people are supported in raising awareness of grooming and exploitation, building relationships with a trusted professional, ensuring their health needs are met, and supporting parents in providing information to police and/or developing strategies in responding to their child’s needs. The team focuses on disrupting offenders through intelligence sharing from young people, their parents and/or professionals, working with partner agencies (for example licensing, housing and trading standards) and investigations and prosecutions.

The team have worked with over 100 young people in preventing and/or protecting them from child exploitation.

Complex Safeguarding is an issue that is considered a priority by senior leaders across the partnership of Children’ Services, Greater Manchester Police and health. The Director for Children’s Services, Gail Hopper, is the Complex Safeguarding lead for Greater Manchester. The team therefore has the support of senior leaders in tackling exploitation in Rochdale.

Awareness raising of child criminal exploitation has been bolstered by community projects sponsored by Children’s Services and Greater Manchester Police – this includes a monologue play (Crossing the Line) delivered to all secondary schools, as well as a short film created by a group of students from Oulder Hill Community School with the support of Breaking Barriers. The film 'Blurred Lines' has been shown in both primary and secondary schools, youth services, to social workers across Children’s Services, frontline Police Officers and to Rochdale Borough Councillors – highlighting the extent of the threat young people are facing and the support available.

The local Complex Safeguarding Team is also supported by the Greater Manchester Complex Safeguarding Hub – bringing 10 local authorities together in sharing best practice, learning, developing and challenging one another, and raising awareness through the ‘It’s Not Okay’ and ‘Trapped’ campaigns.

Rochdale’s journey in tackling child exploitation has involved speaking with young people to learn what works for them. An innovation project funded by the Department for Education enabled research to be undertaken working with young people experiencing child sexual exploitation and exploring new ways of working.

The ACT (Achieving Change Together) model that resulted from this project is currently being rolled out across Greater Manchester and involves focusing on the strengths and ambitions of the young people we are working with. The project highlighted six key principles which underpin all the work within the team:

  • young people must be at the centre of what we do
  • child exploitation is complex, therefore the response cannot be simple or linear
  • no agency can address child exploitation in isolation, collaboration is essential
  • knowledge is crucial
  • communities and families are valuable assets and may also need support
  • effective services require resilient practitioners.

Rochdale continues to learn about new ways in tackling child exploitation. This is only achievable through working together across partnerships being led by senior leaders, enabling the operational team to undertake its vital role in preventing and protecting our children and communities from child sexual and child criminal exploitation.

For more information email [email protected] or call 0161 856 3376.

Staffordshire County Council

Since 2014, Staffordshire County Council has undertaken significant work to strengthen and embed their CSE arrangements and practices. This led to a robust triage of cases, good practice being shared across the county and ownership by the Safeguarding Board. Following an Ofsted Inspection in March 2019, there was a recognition that that there needed to be a partnership response to wider exploitation issues and work needed to build upon a county lines review that had recently been conducted to address this issue.

As a result, a multi-agency task group was set up and an exploitation strategy focussing on emerging exploitation issues was produced. A series of training and development sessions were held with a wide range of practitioners and partners across the county that focused on child exploitation. These sessions were an opportunity to have some immersive conversations and get buy-in on a newly developed response to tackling exploitation.

This approach involved six new vulnerable adolescent multi-agency partnerships made up of the local authority, police, health, district councils, community safety, commissioned services and education that would meet bi-monthly to consider CSE/CCE referrals. Any practitioner working with a child who has a concern completes an online referral form and risk matrix and all high/medium cases are considered at the Panels.

The Panels consider the individual case and co-ordinate a tailored response to disrupt criminal activity using the Home Office Disruption Toolkit but also considering place, context and situation as a means of creating ‘safe spaces.’ Some of the disruption responses to CCE/CSE have included:

  • setting up positive youth/sport activity in an area to divert young people’s focus,
  • upskilling park wardens, registered social landlords and businesses such as the local megabowl to recognise CCE activity
  • reviewing lighting/CCTV camera in parks.

Since the Panels have taking place, there is much more sharing of intelligence about exploitation / county lines activity and there is a better strategic ownership and operational overview of child exploitation issues across the county as a whole as well as the specific dynamics in different districts. For example, issues about familial abuse in a particular district hadn’t been anticipated. There is a much better picture of patterns of movement, child exploitation cases being linked across the county and a better understanding of children that are being imported in/exported out of the county. A performance management framework is in the process of being developed to consider what impact there has been in reducing child exploitation activities in the county and there is greater awareness of keeping places safe.

Through the development of the new arrangements, many lessons have been learnt such as ensuring that all of the right partners/practitioners are proactively engaged in the panels and the referral mechanism is as accessible as possible. Further work is being planned to use ‘community champions’ to strengthen community awareness of child exploitation

For further information contact [email protected]


Southend Borough Council

In 2017 a specific group of young people at risk of CSE were identified and the local authority made the decision to put in place a bespoke team to work exclusively with this group. As a small local authority they did not have the capacity to create a new team so instead seconded in staff from a range of teams to meet this need, the team initially included a YOS Officer, Social Worker, CSE Lead, Early Help Practitioners and staff from an Education background, the Adolescent Intervention Team was born.

The team was tasked to put in place a wraparound service for the young people with a real focus on building trusted professional relationships and were actively encouraged to work a bit differently.  Staff from the team went and spoke to schools of all these children, discussed the risks and concerns with the relative staff and explained the importance of inclusion, especially if the children were displaying challenging behaviours, the team put in place a system that alerted them to any child not attending school so these could be followed up by phone calls and visits. During school holidays, a package of positive activities were put in place at times when children at risk of exploitation to divert them away from their perpetrators and help them build confidence and trust in the professionals working with them. 

In March 2018 the decision was made to expand this provision to address not just CSE but the rise in County Lines and CCE and to provide a top to toe approach to exploitation. Missing and return home interviews (RHI) was brought into the team as was Children Missing Education, the YOS Prevention Team, an extra Social Worker and street based youth workers were also drafted in to increase capacity as was the teenage pregnancy worker. 

Developing strong professional relationships with young people is the core of the work they undertake and they had to consider how best to develop the pathways. A child identified at the MASH+ or Early Help Single Front Door as being at risk of any form of exploitation is diverted immediately into the team. Where the child meets a statutory threshold for a Social Work assessment the child is allocated both a Social Worker and an Early Help Worker to co-work the case; the thinking behind this is that when the child is ready to be de-escalated from a statutory plan the Early Help Worker will remain in place for a seamless transition. 

Whilst undertaking the work with adolescents it quickly became apparent that when young people became 18 years old there was no similar service to continue the work with them. So in 2019 they recruited an Adult Social Worker and Adult Support Worker to work in the team with two separate cohorts identified as requiring support, these were transitional cases, those 18 – 25 years old and vulnerable adults, so these are those being or at risk of being cuckooed in our community. 

The team works extremely closely with Essex Police, the local police station is next door and they have invested heavily in this area of work by employing dedicated criminal and sexual exploitation officers, youth officers, missing officer and a county lines drugs team. As well as specific joint operations, this joint work allows quick sharing of intelligence, joint visits and really core to our work, the ability to hold strategy meetings at short notice with police officers who have an understanding of exploitation in attendance. 

Addressing exploitation requires buy in from the partnership and they have worked hard to recruit and train over 100 exploitation champions across the borough, we have trained in excess of 700 taxi drivers in recognising and reporting signs of exploitation. Work has been undertaken alongside the media team to develop a campaign that has been hugely successful. To date they have undertaken three strands targeting parents, social drug users and children to help educate about county lines. A video has been running online and in local cinemas, which can be accessed at

Looking forward, the team is planning to target and train fast food outlets, sports clubs and more hotels. There will also be two multi-agency disruption events to look at how the partnership can further disrupt exploitation within the borough. The team will also train over 400 staff from schools, housing providers and parks departments amongst others in how to recognise and report signs of exploitation. 

For further information contact [email protected]

Wiltshire County Council

Wiltshire have been working closely with a number of schools to develop understanding of contextual safeguarding and extra familial risk. In 2017, one school contacted Wiltshire’s MASH and Emerald (exploitation) team after becoming concerned that two pupils had arrived at school with expensive new bags, without having any identifiable means by which to have obtained these.

A multi-agency meeting was held within the school, particularly the pastoral team and an association mapping exercise was undertaken. This assisted in understanding the peer associations, friendship networks and specific locations that were being visited by a group of young people, including the two pupils.  Through this work specific links across a number of young people were identified, as well as a link to a suspected adult male perpetrator. 

The Emerald police staff undertook investigations and conducted a number of interviews resulting in links to and concerns regarding the perpetrator being strengthened. The location mapping also enabled the investigation to utilise phone data, placing the perpetrator at specific locations – despite his denial he had been in these localities. This work, which commenced with mapping, resulted in the prosecution of the perpetrator for exploitation and abuse, as well as other criminal offences. 

In conjunction with the University of Bedfordshire as part of their ‘scale up’ project, this work has been the foundation for developing our contextual safeguarding approach. With the support of the YOT, Support and Safeguarding Service, and Police, alongside the Criminal Exploitation Analyst, the team are now working with a number of schools who are keen to address concerns relating to extra familial harm. 

Through this mapping work they are exploring how to keep other young people safe within our area, improving the understanding of peer associations, building positive relationships, identifying concerns, and strengthening safer places and spaces for young people. 

Where local concerns are identified they are taking a multi-agency approach to building community strengths, proactively disrupt and tackle concerning activities, identify and target perpetrators, and offer positive intervention and support. The team has run group activities for young people, offered parenting groups and are working with communities, including the community engagement team. 

The team has learnt and continue to learn a number of lessons as they develop their approach. One of the key messages is the importance of proactively addressing issues and building strengths, rather than just disrupting and displacing negative/criminal activities. The team have found to do this they need to fully understand the ‘pull’ for young people to certain places/spaces or perpetrators, and then seek to provide alternative, safer options. They are also aware that a cohesive multi-agency approach, utilising community guardians is key for sustained positive change and impact.               

The team has established a multi-agency vulnerable adolescents contextual safeguarding panel, where information is co-ordinated to provide high level oversight of what is happening in our area and develop our strategic approach to address extra familial harm. They have also offered contextual safeguarding introductory briefings across the multi-agency partnership, which will be developed further into regular training opportunities on contextual safeguarding, to ensure a sustained approach.

For further information, please contact Andrea Brazier, Service Manager at [email protected]

5. Glossary

Bullying A behaviour that hurts someone else. It includes name calling, hitting, pushing, spreading rumours, threatening or undermining someone. It can happen anywhere – at school, at home or online. It's usually repeated over a long period of time and can hurt a child both physically and emotionally.
Blurred lines A situation where gangs and organised drug dealing networks stop using certain young people because their known vulnerability is attracting law enforcement attention. These Young Persons, having seen the county line tactics and made some contacts, are establishing their own generally more local drug dealing networks.
Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) An individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or (c) through violence or the threat of violence. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. CCE does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.
Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) A form of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative 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).
Contextual Safeguarding The approach developed by Dr Carlene Firmin and colleagues at University of Bedfordshire in 2015. It’s an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Contextual Safeguarding is therefore the intervention into the contexts presenting harm to children- those being peer groups, schools, neighbourhoods and online.
County Lines This is a form a criminal exploitation and is when gangs and organised crime networks groom and exploit children to sell drugs. Often these children are made to travel across counties, and they use dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ to supply drugs. Criminals groom children into trafficking their drugs for them with promises of money, friendship and status. Once they've been drawn in, these children are controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear.
Cyber-bullying Bullying that takes place online. Unlike bullying in the real world, online bullying can follow the child wherever they go, via social networks, gaming and mobile phone.
Child Trafficking Trafficking occurs when children and young people are tricked, forced or persuaded to leave their homes and are moved or transported and then exploited, forced to work or sold. Child trafficking takes place for a variety of reasons including sexual exploitation, benefit fraud, forced marriage, domestic slavery, forced labour in factories, working on cannabis farms or moving drugs. Traffickers can operate in small groups recruiting children and young people from the area they live and work in and also be part of bigger organised criminal gangs that operate internationally and exploit a large number of children.

A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who:

1. see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;

2. engage in criminal activity and violence;

3. lay claim over territory (not necessarily geographical but can include an illegal economy territory);

4. have some form of identifying structural feature; and

5. are in conflict with other, similar, gangs.

Grooming This occurs when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time – from weeks to years. Groomers may also build a relationship with the young person's family or friends to make them seem trustworthy or authoritative.
Independent Child Trafficking Guardians   Provide independent advice and support for child victims. The Government has committed to the national roll out of ICTGs, which are currently available in a third of local authority areas, with more areas included from January 2021. The Guardians build trusting relationships with trafficked children, to help them get away from their traffickers, give practical support, such as help with housing, medical needs and education, give emotional and psychological support through counselling and train professionals working with children so they can spot the signs of trafficking and know how to support trafficked children.
Modern slavery This refers to the human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour for the purpose of exploitation. Therefore, any child who is recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received for the purposes of exploitation is considered to be a victim of modern slavery.
National Referral Mechanism (NRM) This is a framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. Child victims do not have to consent to be referred into the NRM and must first be safeguarded and then referred into the NRM process.
National County Lines Co-ordination Centre (NCLCC) Jointly led by the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs’ Council, NCLCC acts as the national centre to coordinate law enforcement activity to tackle County Lines, including mapping out threats and prioritising action against the most significant perpetrators.
Safeguarding Safeguarding means keeping children safe from maltreatment, ensuring that they are growing up in a safe and suitable environment and taking action to enable all children and young people to have the best outcomes in terms of health and development.
Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking children (UASC) A child who is claiming asylum in their own right, who is separated from both parents, and who is not being cared for by an adult who in law or by custom has responsibility to do so. Their status will be determined by the Home Office.

6. Further information and resources


[3] YJLC, Child Criminal Exploitation: County lines gangs, child trafficking, and modern slavery defences for children

[22] Children Act 1989, Section 47

[23] Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Section 17

[24] The Crime and Disorder (Overview and Scrutiny) Regulations 2009