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4.3 Child Sexual Exploitation


Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017) - Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation.

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse - Key messages from research on child sexual exploitation.

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: Progress Report gives an update on action the government is taking to deal with child sexual exploitation.

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: A Resource Pack for Councils

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation – College of Policing

Child sexual exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - Further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue.

National Crime Agency - UK Human Trafficking Centre


Domestic Violence and Abuse Procedures

Safeguarding Children and Young People who may have been Trafficked Children Procedure

Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May be Affected by Gang Activity, Youth Violence and Criminal Exploitation Procedure


In September 2017 this chapter was updated throughout and should be reread.


  1. What is Child Sexual Exploitation?
  2. Who is Vulnerable to Child Sexual Exploitation?
  3. Potential Indicators of Child Sexual Exploitation
  4. How are Children Sexually Exploited?
  5. How does Child Sexual Exploitation Affect Children?
  6. How to Respond: Working with Children and Young People
  7. Multi-Agency Sexual Exploitation Meetings
  8. Working with Families
  9. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators
  10. Legal Proceedings

    Appendix 1: Under 12’s CSE Screening Tool

    Appendix 2: 12 and Over Screening Tool

    Appendix 3: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Initial Agenda

    Appendix 4: NWG risk assessment form

    Appendix 5: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Review Agenda

    Appendix 6: Intelligence Sharing Tool

    Appendix 7: Child Abduction Warning Notice- Under 16’s

    Appendix 8: Child Abduction Warning Notice - Under 18’s

    Appendix 9: West Midlands CSE Framework

    Appendix 10: West Midlands Metropolitan Area Child Sexual Exploitation Disruption Toolkit

1. What is Child Sexual Exploitation?

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 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).

The definition of child sexual exploitation is as follows:

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

Like all forms of child sexual abuse, 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;
  • Can still be abuse even if the sexual activity appears consensual;
  • Can include both contact (penetrative and non-penetrative acts) and non-contact sexual activity;
  • Can take place in person or via technology, or a combination of both;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and may, or may not, be accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • May occur without the child or young person’s immediate knowledge (through others copying videos or images they have created and posting on social media, for example);
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and children or adults. The abuse can be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents over time, and range from opportunistic to complex organised abuse; and
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the abuse. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, sexual identity, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

Child sexual exploitation is a complex form of abuse and it can be difficult for those working with children to identify and assess. The indicators for child sexual exploitation can sometimes be mistaken for ‘normal adolescent behaviours’. It requires knowledge, skills, professional curiosity and an assessment which analyses the risk factors and personal circumstances of individual children to ensure that the signs and symptoms are interpreted correctly and appropriate support is given. Even where a young person is old enough to legally consent to sexual activity, the law states that consent is only valid where they make a choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. If a child feels they have no other meaningful choice, are under the influence of harmful substances or fearful of what might happen if they don’t comply (all of which are common features in cases of child sexual exploitation) consent cannot legally be given whatever the age of the child.

Child sexual exploitation is never the victim’s fault, even if there is some form of exchange: all children and young people under the age of 18 have a right to be safe and should be protected from harm.

One of the key factors found in most cases of child sexual exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (sexual activity in return for something); for the victim and/or perpetrator or facilitator.

Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or alcohol) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived receipt of love or affection). It is critical to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a child/young person does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example a child who engages in sexual activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm his/her family.

Whilst there can be gifts or treats involved in other forms of sexual abuse (e.g a father who sexually abuses but also buys the child toys) it is most likely referred to as child sexual exploitation if the ‘exchange’, as the core dynamic at play, results in financial gain for or enhanced status of, the perpetrator.

Where the gain is only for the perpetrator/facilitator, there is most likely a financial gain (money, discharge of a debt or free/discounted goods or services) or increased status as a result of the abuse.

If sexual gratification, or exercise of power and control, is the only gain for the perpetrator (and there is no gain for the child/young person) this would not normally constitute child sexual exploitation, but should be responded to as a different form of child sexual abuse.

2. Who is Vulnerable to Child Sexual Exploitation?

Any child, in any community: Child sexual exploitation is occurring across the country but is often hidden so prevalence data is hard to ascertain. However, areas proactively looking for child sexual exploitation are uncovering a problem. All practitioners should be open to the possibility that the children they work with might be affected.

Age: Children aged 12-15 years of age are most at risk of child sexual exploitation although victims as young as 8 have been identified, particularly in relation to online concerns. Equally, those aged 16 or above can also experience child sexual exploitation, and it is important that such abuse is not overlooked due to assumed capacity to consent. Account should be taken of heightened risks amongst this age group, particularly those without adequate economic or systemic support.

Gender: Though child sexual exploitation may be most frequently observed amongst young females, boys are also at risk. Practitioners should be alert to the fact that boys may be less likely than females to disclose experiences of child sexual exploitation and less likely to have these identified by others.

Ethnicity: Child sexual exploitation affects all ethnic groups.

Heightened vulnerability factors: Working Together makes clear the requirements for holistic assessment. Sexual exploitation is often linked to other issues in the life of a child or young person, or in the wider community context. Practitioners should be alert to the fact that child sexual exploitation is complex and rarely presents in isolation of other needs and risks of harm (although this may not always be the case, particularly in relation to online abuse). Child sexual exploitation may be linked to other crimes and practitioners should be mindful that a child who may present as being involved in criminal activity is actually being exploited. Practitioners should not rely on ‘checklists’ alone but should make a holistic assessment of vulnerability, examining risk and protective factors.

Sexual exploitation can have links to other types of crime. These include:

  • Child trafficking;
  • Domestic abuse;
  • Sexual violence in intimate relationships;
  • Grooming (including online grooming);
  • Abusive images of children and their distribution;
  • Drugs-related offences;
  • Gang-related activity;
  • Immigration-related offences; and
  • Domestic servitude.

The following vulnerabilities are examples of the types of things children can experience that might make them more susceptible to child sexual exploitation:

  • Having a prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse;
  • Lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example);
  • Recent bereavement or loss;
  • Social isolation or social difficulties;
  • Absence of a safe environment to explore sexuality;
  • Economic vulnerability;
  • Homelessness or insecure accommodation status;
  • Connections with other children and young people who are being sexually exploited;
  • Family members or other connections involved in adult sex work;
  • Having a physical or learning disability;
  • Being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories); and
  • Sexual identity.

Not all children and young people with these vulnerabilities will experience child sexual exploitation. Child sexual exploitation can also occur without any of these vulnerabilities being present.

3. Potential Indicators of Child Sexual Exploitation

Children rarely self-report child sexual exploitation so it is important that practitioners are aware of potential indicators of risk, including:

  • Acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones etc without plausible explanation;
  • Gang-association and/or isolation from peers/social networks;
  • Exclusion or unexplained absences from school, college or work;
  • Leaving home/care without explanation and persistently going missing or returning late;
  • Excessive receipt of texts/phone calls;
  • Returning home under the influence of drugs/alcohol;
  • Inappropriate sexualised behaviour for age/sexually transmitted infections;
  • Evidence of/suspicions of physical or sexual assault;
  • Relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups;
  • Multiple callers (unknown adults or peers);
  • Frequenting areas known for sex work;
  • Concerning use of internet or other social media;
  • Increasing secretiveness around behaviours; and
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.

Practitioners should also remain open to the fact that child sexual exploitation can occur without any of these risk indicators being obviously present.

4. How are Children Sexually Exploited?

Child sexual exploitation takes many different forms. It can include contact and non-contact sexual activities and can occur online or in person, or a combination of each.

Most child abuse occurs within the home. In cases of child sexual exploitation the risk of harm is generally external or in the community.

Child sexual exploitation may occur without the child being aware of events, or understanding that these constitute abuse. Online exploitation includes the exchange of sexual communication or images and can be particularly challenging to identify and respond to. Children, young people and perpetrators are frequently more familiar with, and spend more time in, these environments than their parents and carers. Those who work with and care for children can struggle to remain up-to-date with the latest sites and potential connection points, so practitioners should always seek specialist support if unsure about online environments. Online child sexual exploitation allows perpetrators to initiate contact with multiple potential victims and offers a perception of anonymity, with children and young people, and perpetrators, potentially saying and doing things online they wouldn’t do offline. Where exploitation does occur online, the transfer of images can be quickly and easily shared with others. This makes it difficult to contain the potential for further abuse.

Children can be both experiencing child sexual exploitation and perpetrating it at the same time. Examples might include a child who is forced to take part in the exploitation of another child under duress, or a child who is forced to introduce other children to their abuser under threats to their family’s safety. These situations require a nuanced approach that recognises and engages with the young person’s perpetration within the context of their own victimisation.

Children who perpetrate child sexual exploitation require a different response to adult perpetrators. Responses may involve criminal justice pathways at times, however every child who displays harmful sexual behaviour should also have their safeguarding and welfare needs actively considered.

Different agencies should work together to: (a) identify any prior victimisation and understand how this has contributed to the perpetration; and (b) map the environments and contexts in which peer-perpetrated child sexual exploitation occurs, looking at the social norms or power dynamics at play which may have influenced the perpetration of abuse. Dependent on the issues emerging, this will likely need both an individually-based response and wider work to address harmful social norms or power dynamics that enable the abuse to occur.

5. How does Child Sexual Exploitation Affect Children?

The long-term consequences of any form of child abuse can be devastating and early identification and providing support as soon as problems emerge is critical.

Child sexual exploitation damages children and like any form of abuse it can have long-lasting consequences that can impact on every part of a child’s life and their future outcomes. Child sexual exploitation has been shown to affect:

  • Physical (including sexual) and mental health and well-being;
  • Education and training and therefore future employment prospects;
  • Family relationships;
  • Friends and social relationships, current and as adults; and
  • Their relationship with their own children in the future.

Child sexual exploitation is complex and children are often reluctant to disclose experiences of exploitation due to misplaced feelings of loyalty and shame. Many may not recognise what they are experiencing as abuse or that they require support or intervention, believing they are in control or in a healthy consensual relationship.

Online annexes to this document set out in greater detail the context of adolescent development and risk.

6. How to Respond: Working with Children and Young People

Child sexual exploitation is never the victim’s fault: All children and young people have a right to be safe and should be protected from harm.

Early sharing of information is key to providing effective help where there are emerging problems. Wherever possible practitioners should share confidential personal information with consent. However, where there are concerns that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, practitioners should be willing to disclose information without consent where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of confidentiality.

Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility. All practitioners should assume that in the course of their work with children they will encounter children at risk of sexual exploitation. The flow chart below shows the process to be followed in Solihull when this happens.

Click here to view the CSE Flowchart for Actions.

7. Multi-Agency Sexual Exploitation Meetings

Multi Agency Sexual Exploitation (MASE) meetings should be chaired by a Children’s Services Manager and take place within 15 working days of the referral to Children’s Services. Appendix 3: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Initial Agenda (a review agenda is also available at Appendix 5: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Review Agenda) provides a suggested format for the agenda and the record of the meeting will constitute a record of attendees, the completed specialist CSE risk assessment and the child’s plan.

Attendance at the meeting should include:

  • The referrer, if a professional;
  • Education and health services;
  • Police
  • Social worker;
  • CSE Coordinator/ member of CSE team;
  • Child/young person;
  • Parent(s)/carer(s);
  • Any other relevant person (e.g. fostering link worker, residential key worker / manager, YOS worker, voluntary agency worker, GP).

Children/family/carers will be invited to all or part of the meeting where appropriate; however a decision will be made on a case by case basis depending on the circumstances of each case. It may be necessary if there is a confidential police investigation underway, surveillance or concerns about the parents or carers that the child and parents/carers are excluded from all or part of the meeting.

The purpose of the meeting should be to:

  • Share and clarify information in order to complete CSE NWG risk assessment (Appendix 4: NWG Risk Assessment Form);
  • Establish exact nature of concerns and the child or young person’s needs;
  • Establish risk for any other children, including siblings;
  • Share information pertaining to a suspected perpetrator(s) with police, i.e. car registration, nickname/ alias, descriptions, tattoos, premises/locations etc;
  • Consider the disruption and prosecution of perpetrators;
  • Consider a referral using the National Referral Mechanism in cases where a child/ young person may have been trafficked;
  • Develop a multi-agency plan to meet the child’s needs including support for parents/carers.

Children and young people may already be involved in child protection or children in care processes or may become involved in these processes in relation to Child Sexual Exploitation.  In these circumstances the Conference Chair or their Independent Reviewing Officer must be kept informed of any concerns relating to child sexual exploitation or any other form of suspected abuse. The child / young person's child protection or care plan must include a strategy to keep them safe. This strategy must be updated and reviewed regularly at the MASE meeting.

All practitioners working with children and families should respond in ways that are:

  • Child-centred: recognising children and young people’s rights to participate in decisions about them in line with their maturity, and focusing on the needs of the child. Other considerations, such as the fear of damaging relationships with children or adults, get in the way of protecting children from abuse and neglect. Practitioners should view a referral as the beginning of a process of inquiry, not as an accusation. Victims may be resistant to intervention and some may maintain links with their abusers, even after attempts to help protect them;
  • Developed and informed by the involvement of a child’s family and carers wherever safe and appropriate: a holistic assessment will take account of the wishes and feelings of children and the views of their parents/carers;
  • Responsive and pro-active: everyone should be alert to the potential signs and indicators of child sexual exploitation, as well as other forms of abuse, and exercise professional curiosity in their day to day work. It is better to help children and young people as early as possible, before issues escalate and become more damaging;
  • Relationship-based: practitioners should establish and maintain trusting relationships with children and young people, and continue to exercise professional curiosity and create safe spaces for disclosure; and
  • Informed by an understanding of the complexities of child sexual exploitation: it is important to avoid language or actions that may lead a young person to feel they are not deserving of support or are in some way to blame for their abuse.

It is important that continued contact is not misinterpreted as informed choice or an indication of absence of harm. Practitioners should maintain their relationships with children and young people, and continue to exercise professional curiosity and create safe spaces for disclosure. Continued contact with perpetrators should be seen as part of the complex power dynamic of the abusive relationship, similar to that in some situations of domestic abuse. Practitioners should continue to reach out to victims and not make the offer of services dependent on formal disclosure. Many victims are only able to disclose after the provision of support, often months or even years down the line.

8. Working with Families

Parents and carers can feel excluded in work with children and young people who are, or who are at risk of being, sexually exploited by perpetrators external to the family. Where assessment shows it is safe and appropriate to do so, parents and families should be regarded as a part of the solution. It is crucial to work with them not only to assess the risks of harm faced by the young person or child but to help them understand what the young person has experienced, the risks they face and how they can be supported and protected. The parents may need direct support and help to improve family relationships and keep their child safe.

9. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators

Working with sexually exploited children is a complex issue which can involve serious crime and investigations over a wide geographical area.

Children may be frightened of the consequences of disclosure and may need to be given time to discuss their experiences.

The need to share information discreetly in a timely fashion has been shown to be vital in these cases.

Agencies and practitioners involved with a child or young person experiencing child sexual exploitation must consider disruption strategies which support the child or young person to leave the situation they find themselves in.

The prosecution and disruption of perpetrators is an essential part of the process in reducing harm. It is the responsibility of the police to gather evidence, investigate and interview perpetrators and prepare case files for consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) with the intention of obtaining the successful conviction of offenders.

Anyone in contact with a child/ young person at risk or involved in child sexual exploitation should be vigilant and alert to gathering intelligence to assist the police in their role. An intelligence sharing form (appendix 6) is available to record any information that may be important and relevant for the police in order to build intelligence, for example:-

  • Vehicle details including registration/make/model/colour, etc;
  • Details/descriptions including names/nicknames of suspected perpetrators;
  • Details/descriptions of unusual/regular callers to children’s homes;
  • Phone numbers of suspected perpetrators;
  • Address details of suspected perpetrators;
  • Details of any addresses or localities where the child may have been taken.

In using the information sharing tool, practitioners or others must submit the information securely to West Midlands Police and in accordance with their own agency’s information sharing arrangements

This information may also inform the use of civil remedies for example; A Child Abduction Warning Notice (See Appendix 7: Child Abduction Warning Notice- Under 16’s and Appendix 8: Child Abduction Warning Notice - Under 18’s) (Section 2 Child Abduction Act 1984; Section 49 Children’s Act 1989) authorised by a child’s parent and issued by the Police (or the Local Authority in the case of a looked after child aged 16-18) warns a suspected perpetrator to stop associating with a named child.  As such, the adult is made aware that a concern has been raised about the relationship and that authorities are watching. There are powers introduced by the Anti-Social Behaviour and Crime and Policing Act 2014 including amongst others; sexual risk order, sexual harm prevention order, closure notice, CSE at a hotel- requirements to disclose information or comply with notice served by the police. There are also tools and powers to tackle nuisance and in the licensing act 2003 and taxi licensing that can be used and may mean that involvement of the local authorities licensing team should be considered.

Many child sexual exploitation cases cross police force boundaries and therefore there should be cross boundary cooperation and information sharing. This may involve the National Crime Agency's CEOP Command (formerly Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) who can support the police by helping to coordinate cross-boundary or international investigations involving child sex offender networks or in the management of high risk offenders which may involve grooming through chat rooms and social networking sites.

10. Legal Proceedings

Where alleged perpetrators are arrested and charged with offences against children or young people, allocated practitioners and foster carers should ensure they are supported throughout the prosecution process and beyond. Specialist agencies should be involved in supporting the child or young person, as required. This may include using special measures to protect them when giving evidence in court for example. Independent Sexual Violence Advisers or specialist voluntary sector services may also have an important role to play.


Appendix 1: Under 12’s CSE Screening Tool

Appendix 2: 12 and Over Screening Tool

Appendix 3: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Initial Agenda

Appendix 4: NWG Risk Assessment Form

Appendix 5: Multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Meeting Review Agenda

Appendix 6: Intelligence Sharing Tool

Appendix 7: Child Abduction Warning Notice- Under 16’s

Appendix 8: Child Abduction Warning Notice - Under 18’s

Appendix 9: West Midlands CSE Framework

Appendix 10: West Midlands Metropolitan Area Child Sexual Exploitation Disruption Toolkit