Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Criminal exploitation of children and young people: raising awareness and developing a contextual safeguarding approach to prevention



I’m Emma and I’m writing this blog, with the rain and grey skies reflecting my current mood as I work my way through my last week as a Prevention Officer on the National Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Prevention Programme. The programme was commissionedby Mr Simon Bailey, Chief Constable for Norfolk and the National Police Chief Council’s lead for Child Protection. The Prevention Programme is a joint initiative between the police, The Children’s Society and Victim Support, funded for one year between March 2017 and March 2018.  As voluntary sector Prevention Officers, we joined an already established network of regional Police CSE Coordinators and Analysts based in the Regional Organised Crime Units across England and Wales. As a network, we have worked to collect intelligence and develop understanding through partnership engagement, identify ‘hotspots’ and priority areas, provide tactical advice and help bridge gaps in evidence based knowledge. Alongside this we have coordinated and delivered some interesting and innovative targeted prevention activities, and developed nine regional CSAE Prevention Strategies, as well as national ones for both England and Wales. We have also created a number of toolkits and resources for professionals which can be found on our website:

Criminal exploitation of children and young people 

As the programme got underway it was apparent that there was a need to develop a strand of work in relation to child criminal exploitation (CCE) which can often interlink with children experiencing sexual abuse, human trafficking and modern day slavery in many different ways.

One manifestation of this is in relation to county lines. The term county lines is becoming more widely recognised and is used to describe situations where children or young people are being internally trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation. Often less understood are the experiences a child or young person faces, and the potential for them to be harmed through various forms of abuse and exploitation as a result.

There is currently no legal definition of county lines or criminal exploitation, and very little guidance. As a result, the criminal exploitation of children and young people is often not fully understood by services working with them, which can impact on the response that a child or young person receives. Trafficking and criminal exploitation are forms of abuse and therefore should be afforded a safeguarding response. Often the visible symptoms of this abuse are responded to, meaning that many children and young people receive a criminal justice response, while their safeguarding needs are overlooked.

Criminal exploitation of children occurs due to an imbalance of power, when children are coerced and controlled into criminal activity by individuals or groups. Children may be exploited even if they appear to be ‘making a choice’, but that perceived ‘choice’ is often characterised by lack of freedom and capacity to make any informed decision, due to the level of power and control the perpetrators hold. Criminal exploitation can take many forms, from getting children to store firearms and other weapons, to robbery and theft, fraud and drugs supply.

County lines is a term used to define a form of criminal exploitation whereby drugs are sold through a dedicated mobile phone line. Children and young people are used to transport drugs - often from urban to rural or coastal areas, but it can be between any two location - and then sell the drugs. Vulnerable adults in the locations the drugs are to be sold are often targeted by perpetrators. They too are coerced and controlled and their homes are used as a base where a child or young people sells drugs from (this process is often referred to as “cuckooing” ) usually over a period of days or weeks and then the child or young person returns once the drugs supply is exhausted. Children can be subject to a high degree of violence and intimidation and weapons (including corrosives) used to threaten and abuse them. Children and young people are often also exposed to sexual abuse in many different forms, from being made to internally insert drugs, exposure to adult sexual activity through to organised commercial sexual exploitation alongside the criminal exploitation. 

What have we done?

The Prevention Programme has aimed to influence practice and policy in relation to child criminal exploitation, by raising awareness across a range of sectors, including at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Missing children, delivering tangible preventative activity influenced by the contextual safeguarding approach and producing a toolkit for professionals Children and young people trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation in relation to county lines. We have also supported the script development of a short film called County Lines.

As part of my role, I conducted a local scoping exercise regarding the police and local authority systems in place for criminally exploited children and found that across my region agencies were actively looking at their systems and structures, particularly after criminal exploitation was included in Joint Targeted Area Inspections and are keen to move forward and make progress in this area. 

Key messages 

Through this work we have identified some key messages to help this process: 

  • Children who are criminally exploited need safeguarding and support, not criminalising. 
  • Considerations should be given to their experience of trauma and where appropriate should be offered therapeutic intervention.
  • Both boys and girls can be criminally exploited and children as young as 12 are being targeted. 
  • Children outside of London and other urban areas are being targeted and trafficked for criminal exploitation. 
  • Perpetrators target and groom children in the same ways in which children are groomed for CSE or radicalisation. 
  • Children who are criminally exploited can also be exploited and abused in other ways (which Dr Carlene Firmin refers to as poly-victimisation).
  • A robust and comprehensive response needs to be provided when children go missing. Responders need to be aware that children who go missing are at increased risk of criminal and sexual exploitation.
  • There is a lack of awareness of human trafficking and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in relation to criminal exploitation of children. 
  • There is a need to develop the local picture in relation to criminal exploitation and be open to looking at the different ways in which children are being criminally exploited in order to develop approaches to prevention and intervention. 
  • There are large gaps in both the understanding of, and intelligence picture about criminally exploited children and young people and perpetrators. 
  • A contextual safeguarding approach should be adopted in relation to awareness raising which should be conducted with professionals, communities (including business and industry, voluntary organisations) and families. 
  • A contextual safeguarding approach should also be taken in relation to geographical areas and situations or places where children may be criminally exploited or present through the course of their abuse should be targeted for preventative activity, intervention and disruption.
  • Awareness raising should include information about the indicators and signs of exploitation, barriers to engagement and importance of professional curiosity when working with children and young people who may be subject to criminal exploitation. The toolkit which has been produced as part of this programme contains some useful information to assist with this.
  • Support and information about where to seek help and make referrals and pass on information should be provided along with information on how to pass on intelligence (anonymously if necessary).
  • Building the intelligence picture around perpetrators will assist with work in relation to disruption and arrest.
  • Perpetrators should be investigated for trafficking offences as well as drugs or serious organised crime offences.
  • Investment in and creation of effective diversionary activities and interventions is needed across the country- and not just focussed on London (e.g. adult and peer mentoring schemes).

As we sadly come to the end of the CSA/E Prevention Programme we realise that we have barely scratched the surface in relation to work on criminal exploitation and there is so much more to do, but I hope that the learning from our project is useful and will influence others to take this issue forward.

In order to read the National CSA/E Strategy and the toolkit created for professionals on Children and young people trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation in relation to county linesplease visit

It would be wrong to conclude this without mentioning the police CSE Coordinator and Analyst network, who have embraced and supported us, listened to us, imparted their wisdom and really valued our knowledge and voluntary sector expertise. 

And finally I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside such proud, passionate, innovative, creative and principled people. Not only within our team, wider with our police colleagues but also the partner agencies we’ve met along the way, who have influenced us, supported this work and shared knowledge, resources, time and positive energy. There is so much strength in this sector, and in this field. 

So, from the Prevention Officers, this is goodbye. Thank you for everything, it’s been wonderful. 

Prevention Officers

Posted: 04 Apr 2018

Author: Delphine Peace

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