Child Exploitation

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 4 minute read

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Understanding of child exploitation and the scale of the problem is still limited. What we do know is that there is a need for agencies to work together to understand the bigger picture, using tools such as contextual safeguarding alongside an understanding of the different ways in which children and young people may be exploited.

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Raquel Vieth, part of the Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme (commissioned in 2022 to help support multi-agency collaboration), says:

A strong response to these types of harms requires a collaborative and aligned partnership working across agencies, communities, families, and with children and young people.

Raquel Vieth, 2023

Definition of child exploitation

Child exploitation is when someone uses a child for financial gain, sexual gratification, labour or personal advantage.

Using cruel and violent treatment to force a child to take part in criminal or sexual activities often leads to physical and emotional harm to the child, to the detriment of their physical and mental health, education, and moral or social development.

“The exploitation of children can take a number of different forms and perpetrators may subject children and young people to multiple forms of abuse at the same time, such as criminal exploitation (including county lines) and sexual exploitation.”

The Home Office, 2019 (updated 2022)

Child criminal exploitation

Child criminal exploitation “occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance in power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child into taking part in… criminal activity, in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or through violence or the threat of violence.”

“They may still have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears to be something they have agreed or consented to.”

Adapted from Keeping Children Safe in Education

CCE involves children and young people up to the age of 18. It is not possible to identify a lower age limit for when children become exposed to CCE as indications are that the starting ages across all of the forms of CCE identified below, are getting younger.  Arguably, the younger the child, the less likely they are to be arrested or identified by law enforcement (the age of criminal responsibility – i.e., the age at which you can be arrested for a crime – is 10 years old in England). It is important to remember that all children and young people are potentially vulnerable to exploitation and come from a range of backgrounds.

The common feature across all the forms of CCE is the imbalance of power. Children and young people will receive something in exchange for them completing acts or favours for the person exploiting them. The something may be gifts, status in a group or gang, somewhere to live, etc. The acts or favours required in return are usually criminal in nature.

The imbalance of power means that consent is not considered, and the choices that the child or young person believes that they have may be nothing of the sort.

Child sexual exploitation

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse. In return for gifts, money, drugs, affection, and status, children and young people are coerced, manipulated and deceived into performing sexual activities. It is not just something that affects teenage girls or specific groups and can happen in and out of school. Children and young people can be tricked into believing they are part of a loving and consensual relationship that could be framed as friendship, mentoring or romantic. Children as young as 8 have been sexually exploited. 

County lines

County lines are illegal drug dealing networks between large urban centres, small towns and rural locations. Children and young people are coerced, using intimidation, blackmail and violence, to transport and sell drugs, cash and weapons across the country via dedicated mobile phone lines which may be referred to as “deal lines”.


The movement of humans from one place to another for the purposes of forced labour, slavery or sexual exploitation is understood to be one of the fastest-growing areas of transnational criminal organisations, and has devastating effects on the victims.

Modern slavery

Modern slavery can affect anyone, regardless of age and gender. Research in March 2022 reported an increase of 27% in the number of modern slavery offences involving a child victim recorded by the police in England and Wales. Modern slavery is mostly a hidden crime, and getting a true picture of its prevalence is very challenging. Modern slavery is seen as an umbrella term.

Child financial exploitation

There is evidence to suggest that teenagers are being targeted by criminals intending to use the teenager’s bank accounts to launder money, and in return, they get to keep some of the money themselves.

Recruitment is often via social media with handles such as "free" or "easy money", and offers of being able to make money "working from home". It is sold as a simple process, just putting money into their account and then transferring it to someone else, keeping a cut. Research by CIFAS (Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance System) in September 2019 identified a 73 percent rise over two years of children and young people aged 14-18 being financially exploited. The research suggests that teenagers often do not realise that what they are being asked to do is illegal.

Children who are caught will face criminal investigations, lose any of the money that they kept as their "fee", have their bank accounts closed and often find it difficult to open an account anywhere else. This will then impact their chances of getting loans, lines of credit, and mobile phones, etc. in the future.

For more information, including videos, see or the National Crime Agency.

One of the key messages from those working with children involved in the different aspects of child exploitation is to not give up trying to work with the children and young people, even if they are unwilling to engage.

The TCE programme highlights the importance of perseverance in safeguarding professionals and how that is interpreted by children:

"A lot of people give up on me really easily because they don’t see that I’m engaging, or they don’t think I’m trying or something. It’s not that, it’s just I can’t trust them, if that makes sense. They need to show that they’re going to stay a bit before I can offload and open up to them."

(Child/young person), Tackling Child Exploitation, 2023

FREE child exploitation poster

This downloadable resource raises the profile of safeguarding for your staff team. For use in staff rooms, on safeguarding boards or on the back of toilet doors, the poster includes tips, a space for local contact details, plus a link and QR codes to this resource page.


DSL Training Materials

  • Presentation

  • Presenter Notes

  • Handout for staff

  • Child Exploitation – Quiz

  • Child Exploitation – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • Child exploitation scenario – Primary Schools

  • Child Exploitation Scenario (Primary) – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child Exploitation scenario – Secondary Schools

  • Child Exploitation Scenario (Secondary) – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child exploitation scenario – 16+ settings

  • Child Exploitation Scenario (16+) – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child exploitation scenario – SEND settings

  • Child Exploitation Scenario (SEND) – DSL Information Sheet

  • Child exploitation scenario – Care Settings

  • Child Exploitation Scenario (Care) – DSL Information Sheet


  • SAVE ME film and facilitator handbook

  • Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea

  • Spot the Signs: Child Exploitation Poster Hub

  • Criminal Exploitation Toolkit

  • Protecting Children From Criminal Exploitation, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery: An Addendum

  • Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit

  • Excluded, Exploited, Forgotten: Childhood Criminal Exploitation and School Exclusions

  • Excluded or Missing from Education and Child Exploitation

  • It Was Hard to Escape: Safeguarding Children at Risk from Criminal Exploitation

  • The Slang Dictionary

  • I’m Being Exploited

  • Look Closer Campaign

  • Money laundering-linked financial exploitation

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