Criminally exploited children: who are they and how to keep them safe

Joe Lane - Head of Policy and Research
Thursday 21 March 2024
Boy standing outside in a garden on the phone to someone

Criminal exploitation of children is when a child is coerced into committing criminal acts. To keep children safe, we need to avoid stereotypes about who can be targeted.

In November 2023, Action for Children commissioned the Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children. We wanted to find out what lies behind the growing problem, and what can be done to prevent it.

Our Jay Review heard that there’s no ‘one-type’ of child who is exploited. Victims can be boys and girls, children from all ethnic backgrounds from anywhere across the UK. However, children groomed into exploitation often have specific vulnerabilities which abusers look out for.

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

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Exploiters target children they can control

Criminals who exploit children are skilled at picking out young people they can manipulate. Often, these are children who feel like they don’t belong, including:

  • Children who’ve been excluded from school.
  • Children who’ve been in care.
  • Children with mental health problems.
  • Children who are struggling with addiction.
  • Neurodiverse children.

Boy with a rucksack walking outdoors, concrete wall behind him, looks at camera with serious expression

Neurodiversity is a risk factor for exploitation

As part of our Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children, witnesses have told us that neurodiversity is a risk factor for exploitation. This is especially true for young people with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder who may be less able to navigate risky and complex situations, and to manage impulsivity.

Going without support for neurodivergence or learning disabilities can also lead to young people being excluded from school. Without the protection of school, children are much more vulnerable to exploitation.

How do exploiters target children?

Some exploiters may target places where these young people spend time – such as residential children’s homes or Pupil Referral Units. They may also contact children online – including through gaming platforms.

Exploiters can provide children with things they need. For a child living in poverty, it could be the money to help their mum with the shopping. For a child abused or neglected at home, an exploiter could provide a sense of protection by giving them somewhere to stay. For a young person feeling lost and ignored, being trusted with tasks can provide them with sense of purpose.

Boy standing amongst concrete pillars - trees surround - he looks up at sky

I wanted to fit in really. I wanted to have money in my pocket... I was bought a phone. I was bought clothes, but I had to do favours back.

K, a young person who gave evidence to the Jay Review

The ‘gains’ that these children get hooks them into an exploiter. Children are then controlled, manipulated, and abused. But they fear for what will happen if they attempt to escape. It can feel safer to stay with who you know.

Criminally exploited children

Tens of thousands of children across the UK risk being trapped in criminal exploitation.

Find out more

There is no ‘one kind’ of exploited child

Children of any gender can be exploited. While boys are more likely to be criminally exploited, girls may be chosen for specific jobs as they tend to be less likely to be stopped by the police.

Girl standing up looking sad into camera next to curtains

Sexual exploitation

Sometimes, children are drawn into criminal gangs thinking they’re in a romantic relationship but end up being sexually abused by the group. Girls are more likely to be sexually exploited, but boys can be too. It can be even harder for boys to seek support as victims of sexual abuse.

It's not just teenagers who are exploited

We might imagine that it’s older teenagers who are involved in gangs. But children as young as 12 are frequently recruited by organised crime – some may even still be in primary school. Younger children are more easily manipulated and can more easily keep a lower profile.

It’s also important to remember that just because a child turns 18, it doesn’t mean they’re no longer being exploited. Young adults can still be victims, especially if they were groomed from an early age.

If the kid isn’t from a single family or a deprived background, services simply don’t recognise the danger. People said things like ‘he’ll grow out of it’, ‘he’s just testing his boundaries'.

Natalie, a mother who gave evidence to the Jay Review
A boy handing over a bag of drugs to someone

Exploited children come from all ethnic backgrounds

Criminal groups recruit children from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Black and ethnic minority young people are over-represented in the statistics we have available.

This is partly because these children are more often targeted by police – through ‘stop and search’ – so are more likely to appear in official figures.

Children from ethnic minorities, particularly black children, are more likely to experience vulnerabilities to exploitation such as living in poverty or being excluded from school.

Black children, particularly, are often ‘adultified’ - seen as being older than their true age and believed to be choosing to put themselves in risky situations. This can affect the support they receive.

Children who have arrived in the UK on their own, such as asylum-seeking children, can be targeted by people traffickers.

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

Join our campaign (opens in a new tab)
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What is county lines?

County lines refers to the mobile phone lines that are used to control the movement of drugs between cities and smaller, rural or coastal towns. Because county lines require moving drugs around, many exploited children who aren’t from big cities and are trafficked across the country. The growing power of county lines is pulling in children from a wide range of backgrounds.

I didn’t even know about county lines and couldn’t believe it when I first heard from the police… I asked them, ‘Are we talking about the same kid?’

Parent of a child supported by Action for Children

What to look out for

Signs of child criminal exploitation may be:

  • Sudden changes in a child’s friendship groups.
  • Changing patterns of behaviour, including being more aggressive or more secretive, or going missing.
  • Problems in school – they might skip school or get into trouble more often.
  • Unexplained money or gifts.
  • Unexplained injuries.
  • Being picked up in cars driven by unknown adults.

Our online support service, Parent Talk, has further advice on how you can spot the signs of exploitation and seek help. You can also contact parent coaches through online chat.

Visit Parent Talk

For free online advice whenever you need it

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