Child sexual exploitation: what you need to know…

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The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSE) is widespread.

The impact on children of being coerced into sexual activity as a form of exchange, is devastating. It causes long term damage to health, educational, social and emotional well-being.

All those working with troubled young people need to have some basic knowledge about commercial sexual exploitation.

So what exactly is CSE and what can we do about it?…

According to UNICEF, commercial sexual exploitation takes three main forms:

  • Abusing children through PROSTITUTION
  • Abusing children through PORNOGRAPHY
  • Abusing children by TRAFFICKING them for sex

In the UK, the government has recently released its action plan for CSE. This also contains a definition:

CSE definition

Risk factors…

Here are some indications that a child may be being exploited or might be at risk of it:

  • Periods of going missing or staying out late
  • Lots of unknown people calling for them
  • Exclusions or frequent unauthorised absences from school
  • Becoming isolated from friends and family
  • Substance misuse
  • Unexplained amounts of money and/or valuable items (gifts, clothes, etc.)
  • Relationship with a controlling peer or adult
  • ‘Boyfriend’ who is older
  • Physical injuries (bruising, grazing, burns, etc.)
  • Worrying behavioural changes (self-harm, eating problems, sleep problems, overdosing, violence/aggression, etc.)

And, more obviously…

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Peers who are thought to be involved in prostitution
  • Going to ‘red light’ areas
  • Pregnancy or termination of pregnancy

As with all lists of risk factors, we have to be careful not to over-interpret someone as risky. But where there are multiple factors present, it’s time to take action and think about how best to support the young person.

What to do if you think you spot a problem…

  • Reach out – Firstly, as with any such serious issue with young people, you could reach out to them. This will need to be done carefully, sensitively and in an “asking if you can help” kind of way. This problem is notorious for triggering defensive responses, so don’t expect miracles. However, carefully pointing out one or two of the issues and expressing your care and concern, is as good a place to start as any.
  • Check out your concerns – You don’t want to jump to conclusions, but you can’t afford to ignore things either. Speak to others and ask how they feel the young person is. Be careful not to suggest the existence of a ‘labelled’ issue (CSE) that isn’t yet established. Focus on observations, behaviours; are the concerns that you have shared by anyone else?
  • Get professional help – This problem may be new to you, but there are those who deal with it all the time.
    • Social Services – the primary responsibility for responding to young people at risk lies with social services. They have a duty to investigate where young people are thought to be at risk of significant harm. Contact the duty social worker at your local authority social services department and explain that you believe there to be a child protection issue with the young person concerned.
    • Police – If a young person goes missing, inform the police. If they keep going missing, keep informing the police. This takes guts and determination, as you may encounter some reluctance. But you must support the young person by guarding their welfare. For an under 18 year old to be out overnight with unknown people in unknown locations is a huge risk to their welfare.
    • Specialist agencies – Believe it or not, there are specialist professionals who deal with child commercial sexual exploitation. Their help is normally accessed via social services, though some will work things in reverse: taking the referral directly and then involving social services. Some Local Authorities have their own in-house service. Others are run by children’s charities, for example Barnardo’s have a number of projects, including the SECOS and Seraf services. Again, when speaking to social services, ask whether they have access to specialists in this area of work.
  • Don’t give up – keep trying. You may be the only person who thinks there’s an issue. But a child’s welfare, or even their life, may depend on something being done to help them.

Thankfully, over the last decade or so, the commercial sexual exploitation of children has begun to enter the mainstream of social care responses. There’s a way to go yet, but informed caring adults can add another vital layer of potential support for these trouble young people.

What do you think?…

  • Do you have experience of encountering CSE? What did you learn; what did you do?
  • What resources, websites, advice or other information sources are you aware of that might help others?…

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can  leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.

For more information…

Related previous posts…

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  • Leonna Anderson

    child explotation is one of the biggest concerns ever and children and teens have no trust in proffessionals because of there faillings and more

    • jonnymatthew

      You’re right, there have doubtless been professional failings, Leonna; the recent scandal in Rotherham is just one stark example of that. But services are progressing across the country and workers are learning all the time about how best to engage with young people at risk or already being exploited. It’s a good thing that this need is now much more accepted and, finally, the government is beginning to put some money behind it (though not nearly enough). It’s just a tragedy that so many children have to be damaged before these things come to the surface and can be dealt with… Thanks for commenting. J.