Young people and exploitation by criminals: how early intervention can help

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Kelly Corcoran - Digital Communications Officer
Wednesday 05 June 2024
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Action for Children's Criminal Exploitation Intervention Service is changing the lives of young people around the UK.

Our Criminal Exploitation Intervention service first launched in Glasgow in 2013. Since then, it has expanded into cities across the UK, including Newcastle, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Last year alone, the service supported 250 young people aged 11 to 18 who have been criminally exploited.

The criminal exploitation of children is a form of child abuse in which a child is coerced, manipulated or deceived into committing criminal acts.

These crimes might includes selling and distributing drugs, cash or weapons (including County Lines), stealing to order, burglary, money laundering and violence.

It may be a stranger who exploits a child, but it might be a friend, family member, or someone a bit older in their neighbourhood.

The first step may seem like a simple favour. The child may be given drugs, a new phone, or some money for lunch. Then, they’re told these weren’t gifts – that they have a debt to pay off.

The harm of exploitation is serious and long-lasting, and includes violence, homelessness, imprisonment, drug addiction and psychological trauma.

How we campaign for Criminally exploited children

How the service works

Our service takes an early intervention approach to address the vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood of children being exploited into criminality.

It was the first project of its kind to use peer mentors, many of whom have experience of the justice system themselves. This makes them accessible role models for teenagers who may have previously struggled to relate to professionals and avoided engagement with authorities.

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The Jay Review looks at how we can end this crisis.

Read the report

What is early intervention?

Early intervention is the process of providing support to children and young people who are at a risk of poor outcomes and tackling the problems they face before they become worse.

Early intervention can take different forms, from school-based programmes to improve children’s social and emotional skills, to mentoring schemes for young people who are vulnerable to involvement in crime.

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

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The benefits of early intervention

With organised crime a bigger threat to the UK than terrorism, it is important to intervene before it’s too late. Research by Action for Children and partners has found that funding for early intervention decreased by 46% between 2010 and 2022, while later intervention spending, including for children in care, increased by 47%.

Early intervention not only helps the child or young person but the community as a whole. Our recent Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children called for an increase in investment in early intervention and prevention services specifically designed for exploited children.

An evaluation of our Glasgow service looked at the 181 young people and 80 family members we supported between 2018 and 2021 and estimated the value of the service in diverting young people from involvement in serious organised crime at almost £3.7 million.

One teenager who had committed almost 600 offences before being referred to the services has not reoffended since being supported by scheme.

£3.7 million estimated value of our Glasgow early intervention service

Projects such as these don't only reduce criminal activity. They allow young people to thrive, helping more of them have a safe and happy childhood. They also help families heal and protect their children. Families like Cristi and her son Sam.

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Cristi and Sam's story

Sam was struggling after the death of a close relative. He was vulnerable. And it was at this time that Sam was exploited. He was asked to sell drugs in the local area on behalf of others he saw as friends, and gathered debts that he struggled to manage because of his own drug use.

After being charged by the police, Sam was referred to Action for Children.

When talking to Action for Children, Sam's mother told us how "he was a child going off the rails [but] nobody would listen". This caused immense suffering for both Cristi and Sam:

I'd been to the police, I’d been through school, I’d tried to get him referred to CAMHS and nothing would work and we were on our own. He wouldn’t come home, he would stay out for weeks on end. I’d phone the police and the police would call me a bad mum.

Cristi and Sam's story show's how valuable family support is. And the importance of early intervention. Thankfully, our family support services were able to help. And the future is brighter for Cristi and Sam.

Cristi told us: "Action for Children have come in and supported me and given me my life back. They made me feel like I was a person [...]. Since everything that’s happened, Sam's been diagnosed with ADHD and autism. He’s got a job now."

How you can help

Children don’t choose their childhood but we can choose to help

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

Join our campaign (opens in a new tab)