Child Exploitation – A Reminder that it Could be Anywhere and Involve Anyone

What is child exploitation? In this blog, SFE Adviser Jo Perrin discusses the definition and features of child exploitation, and how contextual safeguarding is so important when identifying this form of abuse.


Child Exploitation – A Definition.

Children (up to the age of 18 as in the legal definition) are inherently more vulnerable than the adults around them. They are generally physically less powerful and in almost all cases their voices are not heard as prominently.

Sometimes, even when their voice is heard it isn’t believed, or isn’t given the same weight as the opinion of adults around them.

This leads to a situation where children might be exploited.

Child Exploitation

Child Exploitation occurs where an adult, or a group of adults, takes advantage of the power imbalance that exists, to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. Children can be exploited by other children on occasion too.

Typically a child has done a certain act which is referenced by some exchange (of goods, payments, relationship or increased status in a group).

It can be exploitation even if a child thinks they have “consented” to a situation or they have received something in exchange.

It’s worth exploring with all of your staff their understanding that it is never the child’s fault, even if some exchange has taken place.

The opportunities for, and types of, exploitation are vast and don’t neatly fit into just one category.

Common situations you will probably be familiar with include child sexual exploitation, situations of child criminal exploitation such as gang violence and county lines involvement and possibly types of modern day slavery.

To give an idea of the size of the problem, if we examine modern day slavery alone, Home Office Official Statistics show that by the end of 2021:

    • 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery – the highest number of referrals since the records began in 2009
    • 43% of all of these were children – meaning there were 5,468 potential child victims

This is just one of the many ways in which children are being exploited today.

The Breadth of Child Exploitation

Due to the number of situations that can be termed as child exploitation, we have produced the following visual poster as a reminder for your staff.

Download as PDF here.

Here are some key terms and quick definitions too – not an exhaustive list by any means, but key terms every adult in your setting should be clear about.

Child Sexual Exploitation This is a type of sexual abuse where a young person is exploited into performing sexual activity. There is often something given to the child at this time (gifts, money, affection etc.). There are several models of CSE, many of which lead the child into believing they are loved and cared for by their abuser.
Child Criminal Exploitation Children are groomed and exploited into committing criminal activity, for the ultimate benefit of someone else. This takes many different forms. Children are victims of exploitation, but often in law are still treated as criminals.
County Lines This refers to systems where organised drug dealing networks transport drugs from one area of the country to another, often using exploited children to transport the drugs to a location to deal from. Burner mobile phone “lines” are set up to arrange transactions.
Power Imbalance Both parties cannot be said to be “equal” – the imbalance might be through age, gender, status in a group, cognitive ability, financial control, mental health issues or one party being isolated through bullying, bereavement or lack of wider support networks for example.
Modern Day Slavery This is when an individual is exploited by others for personal or commercial gain. The individual loses their freedom by being tricked, coerced or forced. This happens internationally and to UK nationals, including children. It is a general term but can cover human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage. People might be forced to work in takeaways, car washes, work in factories or in houses as cleaners or nannies.
Grooming Someone creates a relationship with a child (or other vulnerable person) and then exploits this trust that has been built in the pseudo relationship to abuse and manipulate the other person. This is often used to describe sexual abuse, but can be other types of abuse too.
Child Trafficking Trafficking is where a child is moved from one place to another for the purposes of exploitation – usually CSE or gang related. This can be international, or very local – as even from one part of a town to another can be trafficking.
Gangs This can have a variety of definitions, but in terms of safeguarding we are talking about (usually) young adults and children, who identify as a group and often represent a particular geographical area or “territory”. These gangs are often involved in anti-social and criminal acts, which can include violence, theft and drug dealing. Members will display characteristics that allow them to be identified as a group. Some gangs are led by organised criminal groups, others are more informal.

The Importance of Contextual Safeguarding and Staff Noticing Changes

Contextual Safeguarding describes an approach developed by Dr Carlene Firmin and her team at the University of Bedfordshire from 2015.

It looks at how we understand, and respond to, children’s experiences of significant harm that occur beyond their family life.

It recognises that children, especially as they grow older and more independent, form different relationships in their neighbourhood, school and online, and any of these relationships can potentially feature violence and abuse. Parents/carers often might have little influence over these contexts.

As professionals working with children it is so important that we are aware of these external influences and that we create a curriculum that talks about risk in its widest sense.

Our PSHE/ RSHE curriculum needs to tackle these specific threats to children’s well-being and we need to actively signpost children to where they can seek support.

It is just as crucial that we train our staff, repeatedly, to look beyond behaviours that might not follow our “rules” and look at why we might be seeing a change in behaviours.

    • Is a child talking of a new group of “friends” or talking about situations in the community that raise concern?
    • Has behaviour or language used changed, and provokes concern?
    • Do adults proactively pass on any concerns to DSLs without waiting for an overt “disclosure”?
    • Do children in your settings know how to ask for support? When did you last remind them?

Our constant vigilance and reporting and recording of the seemingly “smaller” situations and comments, builds up a picture that might demonstrate a child is not safe and is potentially being exploited.

This might be the key information needed for agencies, such as the police and the contextual safeguarding hubs in local authority areas, who often aim to work pro-actively to disrupt perpetrators, to act and keep children safe from all types of exploitation happening in the local area.


It is important to remember that child exploitation can occur anywhere, and involve anyone.

We must look out for the key risks and signs of child exploitation in order to protect the children in our care, all of whom are vulnerable to this kind of abuse.

If you need support with this area, please get in touch to see if we can help develop your setting’s understanding further. You can reach us at

If you found this blog interesting, you may also want to browse our other safeguarding blogs, here.


About the Author.

Jo PerrinJo Perrin - Adviser, Services For Education

Jo Perrin is a seasoned Education Adviser with a strong background in safeguarding. She has held key roles as a Designated Safeguarding Lead and pastoral lead in the education sector. Facilitating training to enhance the knowledge and skills of professionals working directly with children and young people is her passion.

With a wealth of experience in teaching PSHE and expertise in childhood trauma from her time as a foster carer, Jo is dedicated to supporting organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults on safeguarding issues. She is actively involved in professional safeguarding groups in the West Midlands and is currently collaborating on a research project with colleagues from the University of Birmingham and the NHS focusing on FGM awareness within communities. Jo’s has worked as a West Midlands' Adviser for national PSHE resources, presented at the Sex Education Forum National Members' Event and authored an advertorial for PSM magazine and an article for SEND magazine.

Jo's expertise extends to training on topics such as Safer Recruitment and Mental Health at Work. She is also a facilitator for the nationally recognised NPQSL qualification, supporting senior leaders in education. Her contributions to publications and development of resources for RSE provision have been well-received by schools nationally and internationally.

With her extensive experience and dedication to professional development, Jo Perrin is a highly respected figure in the field of education. Her guidance on safeguarding, mental health awareness, personal development, and relationships education is highly valued within the industry.

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.
Skip to content