Child Criminal Exploitation

Children can be exploited in many ways, including being trafficked, sexually exploited and used to run drugs. All of these come under the banner of child criminal exploitation.

Understanding of child criminal exploitation (CCE) 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 may be exploited.

This is emphasised in a Joint Targeted Area Inspection report (JTAI) in November 2018, which stated:

As we reported in 2016, understanding exploitation of children ‘is not simply about identifying the characteristics of children who are vulnerable to abuse… it requires a wider perspective and understanding of the contexts, situations and relationships in which exploitation [of children] is likely to manifest’.


Child Criminal Exploitation… occurs where 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. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

Home Office, September 2018

Quotation marks

CCE involves children 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).  The JTAI referred to above notes that “all children are vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation, not just specific groups”, with “exploited children coming from a range of backgrounds”.

The common feature across all of the forms of CCE is the imbalance of power.  Often 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 that 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 of young people. It is not just something that affects teenage girls or specific groups and can happen in and out of school.  It involves an individual or group coercing, manipulating and deceiving a child into sexual activity. Children as young as 8 have been sexually exploited.

County lines


County lines are a network between an urban centre and county location where drugs are sold often over a mobile phone. Children and vulnerable people are used to transport drugs, cash or even weapons. It can involve intimidation, blackmail and serious violence.



The trade of humans for the purposes of forced labour, slavery or sexual exploitation is understood to be one of the fastest growing areas of trans-national criminal organisations, and has devastating effects on the victims.

Modern slavery


Modern slavery can affect anyone, regardless of age and gender, with research suggesting that at least a third of victims are male and a quarter of victims are children.  Modern slavery is mostly a hidden crime, and to get a true picture of prevalence is very challenging. Modern slavery is seen as an umbrella term.

Money mules


There is evidence to suggest that teenagers are being targeted by criminals with the view to the teenager’s bank accounts being used to launder money, with the offer that 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 in the of children aged 14-18 being used as money mules in this way. 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, mobile phones, etc. in the future.

For more information, including videos see or the Money Advice Service.

One of the key messages from those working with children involved in the different aspects of CCE is to not give up trying to work with the children and young people, even where they are not willing to engage.  The JTAI found:

Some areas and agencies need to do more to recognise the complexity of some children’s lives. The behaviours that children present with, such as offending or violence, may result from exploitation outside the home and/or from abuse at home. Any interventions need to take into account all risks and needs. We must all understand that children who have been criminally exploited are the victims of crime.


  • Consent: It’s as simple as tea

    YouTube video by Blue Seat Studios helping people of all ages understand what is meant by consent by using the analogy of a cup of tea.

  • What makes a good relationship?

    Poster developed by Catch 22 providing an easy way to help children to think about relationships and what a good relationship is.

  • Child criminal exploitation – how do gangs recruit and coerce young people

    Poster from Catch 22 summarising the pattern of exploitation from friendship, to building trust to using threats.

  • Criminal Exploitation: Stages of Recruitment

    Two page document produced by the Children’s Society breaking down recruitment into Criminal Exploitation into four stages and providing information about what young people may experience at each stage of recruitment – can also be used when considering cases of exploitation.

  • Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery: an addendum

    This report is about the findings from three joint targeted area inspections, carried out in the spring of 2018 that examined ‘the multi-agency response to child exploitation and children missing from home, care or education’. It is an addendum to our 2016 report: ‘‘Time to listen’ – a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children’.

  • Child exploitation disruption toolkit

    The toolkit is primarily aimed at frontline staff, including law enforcement, social care, education, housing and the voluntary sector, working to safeguard children and young people under the age of 18 from sexual and criminal exploitation.

  • The Slang Dictionary

    Produced by the Children’s Society, this slang dictionary seeks to support parents, carers and professionals to better understand the language young people may be using and support them to safeguard young people.  It is important to recognise that if a young person uses this language, it does not necessarily mean they are being exploited. This resource aims to support parents,  carers and professionals to start conversations with young people and raise awareness around this language.

  • Excluded, exploited, forgotten: Childhood criminal exploitation and school exclusions

    There is a clear and near-universally acknowledged statistical link between exclusions and children and young people becoming involved in violent crime as either victim or perpetrator. Young people outside of mainstream education are at an increased risk even if a causative link has not yet been proved. This report describes one way in which this phenomenon manifests – through the process of child criminal exploitation (CCE).