Sexually Exploited Children

Children who are sexually exploited are the victims of child sexual abuse. A sexually exploited child will require a properly planned and co-ordinated assessment so that their needs – both in terms of the circumstances leading to the abuse and the impact of it – can be addressed. 




We have a legal responsibility to safeguard children up to the age of 18 years. No child under 13 years can consent to sexual activity and this is statutory rape. Children under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to sexual activity, however the law is not intended to criminalise young people it should focus on the perpetrator where there is an inappropriate sexual relationship.

The sexual exploitation of children (CSE) under-18 is defined as that which:

‘involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive ‘something’ (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities. Child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition; for example being persuaded to post sexual images on the Internet/mobile phones without immediate payment or gain. In all cases, those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social/economic and/or emotional vulnerability’   (Department for Education 2012)

Sexual exploitation can take many forms from the seemingly ‘consensual’ relationship where sex is exchanged for attention/affection, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. What marks out exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitive relationship develops.

Sexual exploitation is not solely related to girls and young women who are sexually exploited; boys and young men can be victims too. Abusers and coercers – who are predominantly, but not always, men – often physically, sexually and emotionally abuse children and young people.


Recognition and response

All professionals who work with children should be alert to the signs of possible sexual exploitation. Appendix A: Warning Signs and Vulnerabilities Checklist is a useful guide to assist professionals in identifying if a child may be at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation.  

Many children might not think that they want or need protection from sexual exploitation and might be resistant to what they perceive as interference from authorities. Practitioners should be aware that many children and young people who are victims of sexual exploitation do not recognise themselves as such. Often the process of engaging with children who are being sexually exploited can be difficult and lengthy as it can take time for professionals to build up trust and overcome their resistance to being helped and supported to exit the abusive situation.  Anyone who has regular contact with children is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs which may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation.

A crucial part of the process is early and effective communication of concerns.  If a professional suspects that a child may be at risk or vulnerable to sexual exploitation, then they should be completing the Tees CSE Risk Assessment Tool to determine the level of risk for the child. Where the child is known to be a victim of sexual exploitation and the level of risk needs to be greater understood then this tool should also be utilised. Professionals should also be raising their concerns with the person in their organisation who has safeguarding children responsibilities.

Children who are subjected to sexual exploitation should ordinarily be treated as victims of child sexual abuse, see Sexual abuse, even where a criminal offence may have been committed by the child. The focus of any criminal investigation should be on the abusers that are ‘controlling’ the child and those using the child for sexual gratification.  

A child who is suspected of being at risk of sexual exploitation or whom is being sexually exploited will be a child who may be defined as a ‘child in need’ under S.17 of the Children Act 1989. A SAFER referral must be completed and sent to the local authority First Contact/Duty Team for consideration of the most appropriate service intervention. Any other assessments completed on the child, such as a Common assessment or CSE risk assessment, must be attached to the referral. If the child is determined to be a ‘child in need’ then Children’s Social Care will lead on a children and families assessment.  

If child sexual exploitation is suspected or known, whether that is through a SAFER referral to First Contact/Duty Team or through active agency involvement with the child, as part of the information gathering process enquires must be made with Sexual Health to determine if they have relevant information to share about the child that could inform the safeguarding response.  

Whether the child is active to Children’s Social Care or not, where it appears that the significant harm threshold may be met and/or a criminal offence committed against the child, or the child is deemed to be at immediate risk of significant harm, then child protection procedures should be invoked, see Child protection enquiries. This includes if the child is ‘looked after’ by the local authority.  

A significant number of children who are victims of sexual exploitation go missing from home, care and education at some point. Return interviews for missing children can help in establishing why a young person went missing and the subsequent support that may be required, as well as preventing repeat incidents. The information gathered from return interviews can be used to inform the identification, referral, and assessment of any child at risk of sexual exploitation or who is being sexually exploited. For all children running or missing from home or care the Tees Running and Missing From Home should be followed.

Identifying, disrupting and prosecuting perpetrators must be a key part of work to safeguard children from sexual exploitation.  The police must focus on taking action against those intent on abusing and exploiting children but the support from other partners is vital. The police have developed an information sharing form regarding child sexual exploitation Operation Shield VEMT Information Report 07.2016.docx. This form should be used by all LSCB partner agencies to share information with the police regarding possible indicators that child sexual exploitation is taking place in a particular venue/location, hotspot, or by use of a particular vehicle etc. It should also be used to share information about possible perpetrators of child sexual exploitation. It should not be used to share information about individual children. The form can be completed by any practitioner at any time when they identify information. Where concerns may be raised at a multi agency meeting then the practitioners at that meeting should identify who will take responsibility for sharing the information with the police, of the police were not in attendance.


16 and 17 year olds

The fact that a child is 16 or 17 years old and has reached the legal age of being able to consent to sexual activity should not be taken as a sign that they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation. They can still suffer significant harm as a result of sexual exploitation and their right to support and protection from harm should not be ignored because they are over the age of 16.

It must be acknowledged that children reaching adulthood can continue to be sexually exploited into adulthood and will still require support and protection. It is essential that children coming up to the age of 18 years of age are referred to Adult Services prior to the point of reaching adulthood in order to ensure effective transition and continuation of services. Where young people are care leavers and are still active to Children’s Social Care they will require the same level of oversight and regular multi agency meetings to address ongoing concerns.


Vulnerable, Exploited, Missing, Trafficked (VEMT) Practitioners Group (VPG)

The VPG is attended by frontline managers and practitioners from a range of agencies, statutory and voluntary, involved in providing services to children. This purpose of the VPG is to have oversight of those children who are vulnerable to, or involved in, sexual exploitation and those children repeatedly reported as running or missing from home or care. The VPG is a scrutiny process that seeks reassurance that appropriate services and risk management strategies are in place to reduce the risk of harm to the child. Where there may be gaps in service provision or the level of risk does not appear to be reducing after a period of time then the VPG will escalate these concerns to the relevant lead professional or LSCB sub group, where appropriate. The VPG also identifies specific themes or trends relating to possible or actual sexual exploitation, such as possible hotspots or addresses, and identifies potential facilitators of children running or being sexually exploited or trafficked. This ensures a robust, timely co-ordinated response to tackling CSE is in place. It is important to note that the VPG does not replace any existing procedures in place to safeguard children. It is not a planning or review meeting and does not provide a service to children. Children are identified through the agencies already working with the child who have identified CSE as a concern, and through missing episodes brought to the attention of the local authority by the police. If CSE is an identified concern then the appropriate procedures should be followed as set out above and the child raised at the VPG through the agency representative for the agency who identified the concern who sits on the group. If the agency is not represented at VPG then the practitioner should have initial discussions with the First Contact/Duty Team regarding the child being discussed at VPG.

For looked after children placed out of the local authority area who are vulnerable to or are being sexually exploited they should be discussed and remain on the home authority VPG but the host authority VPG (if child placed in Teesside) or equivalent CSE meeting (if placed outside of Teesside) should be alerted to the child being in their area and identified as at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation. Information that will assist with safeguarding the child and/or other children should be communicated between the home and host authority as appropriate.


Child trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation

Where any child under the age of 18 has been moved or taken to another local authority for the purposes of sexual exploitation then this child is likely to have been ‘trafficked’ and such incidents should be referred to the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre via The National Referral Mechanism | ECPAT UK - Protecting Children Everywhere. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive the appropriate protection and support.  Referring children into the NRM encourages the sharing of information between agencies and can help to ensure an appropriate safeguarding response. It also helps the UK to collect evidence and build an understanding of the patterns of child trafficking. This helps to shape policy and can aid police investigations into trafficking.


Information sharing

If a practitioner is unsure if the information they hold should be shared and how much information they should be sharing then they should refer themselves to the Tees Information Sharing Protocol for guidance. Ultimately safeguarding and promoting the welfare, and future welfare, of a child is the prime consideration in all decision making about information sharing.


Useful Guidance, Pathway Tools, Contacts and Websites:

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