Child Exploitation

We hear about child exploitation a lot in the news, and you may have even seen storylines about it on TV shows, like Coronation Street who showed Bethany Platt being groomed and used for sex, or Hollyoaks who showed several of their young characters being groomed by drug gangs to carry out crime...

but there is more to it than those two examples and it might not be something everyone fully understands.

Child exploitation montage

By understanding what child exploitation means, and how to spot the signs you can be more prepared to protect your child if you ever think they’re in danger.

What is Child Exploitation?

It is a form of child abuse. It happens when either an individual or a group of people use their power or position to take advantage of a child or a young person. This includes:

  • Child sexual exploitation – a type of sexual abuse where someone is forced, tricked or pressured into sexual activity.
  • Child criminal exploitation – when a child/young person is forced, tricked or pressured to take part into criminal activity, including selling or moving drugs, begging and burglary.
  • Modern day slavery - where a child/young person is forced to work in order to pay off a debt. This may be cleaning, cooking, working in factories or criminal and sexual activity. The people who do this often gain families' trust by promising a better future for their child elsewhere or by threats of violence.

Exploitation can be hard for a child to recognise and they may not understand that they are being taken advantage of. 

Ivison Trust (formerly Parents Against Child Exploitation) have produced this video which explains more about Child Exploitation for parents/carers:

The Childrens Society have produced a helpful podcast which explains more about Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines

People who commit child sexual exploitation often ‘groom’ their victims to gain their trust.

Grooming involves building a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with the child or young person so that they can be taken advantage of and exploited. The forms of relationship a groomer can build include romantic relationships, friendships, and relationships via social media, messaging apps, on games and apps, or in person. A groomer will often give the child or young person a lot of attention, gifts, and take them on trips/outings or holidays. It can take place over varying periods of time, from a few days to several years.

Contact may be direct or through a child’s school mates, friends, siblings or neighbours. Many children disclose that the initial contact was made by someone they regarded as an equal.

It happens to children from all backgrounds and communities, right across the UK, out of sight and behind closed doors. It happens to both boys and girls, online or offline. And a victim may have been sexually exploited, even if it appears consensual.

Child sexual exploitation is never the young person’s fault, even when they 'agree' to the sexual activity. Offenders of child sexual exploitation are both skilled and strategic; they aim to drive a wedge between you and your child, closing down the normal channels of communication and emotional bond between you.

The signs to look out for

Knowing the signs of child sexual exploitation and being aware of the support available can help to equip parents and carers with the knowledge and tools to step in early.

  • Being especially secretive and not spending time with their usual friends. They may be particularly prone to sharp mood swings; it may seem that their personality has completely changed.
  • Spending time with, or developing a sexual relationship with older men and/or women
  • Going missing from home and not letting you know where they are, what they’re doing and who with. Often returning home late or staying out all night, although some offenders know that parents will suspect something is wrong if their child stays out all night, so they may begin by dropping the child off at the home before their curfew. They may even pick them up outside the school gates.
  • Strange calls and messages on their mobiles or social media pages from people you’re not familiar with, possibly older people from outside their friendship circle
  • New belongings which they couldn’t normally afford, such as mobile phones, trainers, clothes or jewellery

Your child may also:

  • Start dressing differently
  • Look tired and/or unwell, and sleep at unusual hours
  • Have marks or scars on their body which they try to hide
  • Talk differently, adopt new ‘street language’ or respond to a new nickname

Child criminal exploitation (CCE) is when young people are manipulated by gangs and criminals into committing crimes, like holding onto or selling drugs, begging, carrying weapons and committing theft or burglary. 

A young person may be caught up in CCE and not even realise it, because to them being part of a gang feels like being with their friends. They feel important, protected and respected.

County lines is the most common type of activity, where young people are recruited to distribute drugs from cities into smaller towns and rural areas. There is a strong link between county lines activity and:

  • serious violence/death such as knife and gun crime
  • the use of substances such as acid as a weapon

Some young people are also made to feel like they have no choice but to commit these crimes, and they’ll be scared to speak out about what is happening.

The Childrens Society have produced a helpful podcast which explains more about Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines

The signs to look out for

  • New belongings which they couldn’t normally afford, such as mobile phones, trainers, clothes or jewellery
  • Change in behaviour, i.e. more secretive, withdrawn, or not mixing with usual friends
  • Unexplained absences from, or not engaged in school, college, training, or work
  • Increasingly disruptive, hostile or physically aggressive at home or school, including the use of sexualised language and language in relation to drug dealing and/or violence
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being
  • Expressions around invincibility or not caring about what happens to them
  • Increased interest in making money
  • Frequent missing episodes and being found in a different area to where you live
  • Found with large quantities of drugs or weapons
  • Reports of being taken to parties, people’s houses, unknown areas, hotels, nightclubs, takeaways or out of area by unknown adults
  • Increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • Fear of reprisal from gang members or violence from young people or adults
  • Having multiple mobile phones, sim cards or use of a phone that causes concern egg multiple callers or more texts/pings than usual
  • Possession of hotel keys/cards, or keys to unknown premises
  • Entering or leaving vehicles/cars with unknown adults

Modern slavery is a term for all forms of slavery, human trafficking and exploitation. It is a hidden crime with victims often unable to come forward due to fear or shame, or because they are unable to leave their situation.

How does a child become involved?

Children are tricked, forced or persuaded to leave their homes. Traffickers often use grooming techniques to gain the trust of a child, family or community.

Traffickers may promise children an education or persuade parents their child can have a better future in another place.

Sometimes families will be asked for payment towards the ‘service’ a trafficker is providing – for example sorting out the child’s documentation prior to travel or organising transportation.

Traffickers make a profit from the money a child earns through exploitation, forced labour or crime. Often this is explained as a way for a child to pay off a debt they or their family ‘owe’ to the traffickers.

What are the signs a child has been trafficked?

Identifying a child who has been trafficked is difficult as they are hidden and isolated from the people and communities who can protect them.

Signs that a child has been trafficked may not be obvious, but could include:

  • rarely leaving the house
  • having no time to play
  • living apart from family or having limited social contact with friends, family and the community
  • appearing unfamiliar with a neighbourhood
  • being seen in inappropriate places (for example factories or brothels)
  • being unsure of where they live
  • having their movements controlled or being unable to travel on their own
  • living somewhere inappropriate, like a work address or dirty, cramped, unhygienic or overcrowded accommodation, including caravans, sheds, tents or outbuildings
  • lacking personal items
  • consistently wearing the same clothes
  • often being moved by others between specific locations (for example to and from work) – this may happen at unusual times such as very early in the day or at night
  • being unable or reluctant to give details such as where they live
  • fearful or withdrawn behaviour, or efforts made to disguise this
  • being involved in gang activity
  • being involved in the consumption, sale or trafficking of drugs
  • having their communication controlled by another – may act as though instructed by, or dependent upon, someone else
  • tattoos or other marks indicating ownership
  • physical or psychological abuse, ill health, exhaustion or injury – may look unkempt and malnourished
  • reluctance to seek help, avoidance of strangers, being fearful or hostile towards authorities
  • providing a prepared story if questioned or struggling to recall experiences


There are some ways to help prevent child exploitation:

  • Talk to children about staying safe and grooming - the NSPCC has further information about what grooming is and how to keep your children safe.
  • Talk to children about gangs - Family Lives has advice for parents on how to talk to children/young people about gangs, and how to keep them safe.
  • Help keep children safe online - Thinkuknow has videos and resources for parents as well as primary and secondary school children.
  • Ivison trust (formerly PACE) hold regular online webinars for parents who want to know more about Child Exploitation. For more information and upcoming dates visit Ivison Trust webinars
  • ‘The Parents’ and Carers’ Guide to the Internet’ - created by CEOP to provide a light-hearted and realistic look at what it takes to be a better online parent. The site also has age specific advice for parents and carers of primary and secondary school age children. Read more at thinkuknow

What help is available?

  • We have a parenting programme for parents and carers whose child may be at risk of exploitation. You can attend the DICE programme either in person or virtually. Please visit our parenting programmes page for more details on what the course covers and to register.
  • Ivison Trust (Formerly PACE) work alongside parents and carers whose children are or are at risk of being exploited. Visit their website to read more: Ivison Trust UK.
  • Ivison Trust have parent support workers who provide independent, non-judgmental and confidential support, which fully recognises your rights as a parent and your decisions on how to reduce the risk of harm to your child. They are there to listen to your concerns, give information on statutory agencies and procedures and to pass on advice from other affected parents, should you require it. They will never blame you for what is happening to your child and aim to help you find the best solution for your family. Visit Ivison Trust's telephone support page to learn more about the parent support service and complete an enquiry form to speak to a member of the team.

Reporting concerns

If you have a concern about a child, you can speak to one of our consultant social workers by:

or you can contact the police by calling:

  • Police Non-Emergency – 101
  • Police Emergency – 999

If you have seen something online that concerns you, please make a report to Child Exploitation and Online Protection now.


If your child is affected:

  • It’s not your fault. Child exploitation happens to girls and boys from all backgrounds and communities.
  • You are not alone– there is support available for you, your child and your family.
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