Criminally exploited children

Going missing. Ordered to move drugs and money. Told to carry a knife. Terrified. Tens of thousands of children across the UK risk being trapped in criminal exploitation - their lives shattered and futures stolen.

This is child abuse. And it’s growing. We can prevent children being exploited and end this crisis. We need a system fit for purpose.

Our government, social services and justice system need to work together to keep children safe.

The Jay Review

We’ve commissioned a review into how we can end the crisis of children being criminally exploited.

Read the report (opens in a new tab)

What is the criminal exploitation of children?

Criminal exploitation of children is when a child is coerced into committing criminal acts.

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. Their exploiter may even set them up to lose the money, to trap them into accepting the debt.

With time, repaying this debt can escalate from delivering a parcel, or looking after some money, to acts of serious violence.

As they fall deeper into crime, they're exposed to things no child should experience. This trauma changes the way they see the world. It makes it even harder for them to turn away from crime and see a positive life for themselves outside that world.

Do I want to lose my freedom or do I want to be dead? I don't want none of that. I want to be alive. I want to be living. I want to have a family.

Danny, young person with lived experience of exploitation
A boy handing over a bag of drugs to someone

Who can be a victim of criminal exploitation?

Criminals who exploit children are skilled at picking out young people they can control. Often, these are children who’ve felt let down or pushed out elsewhere. Children excluded from school. Children who are in care. Children with mental health problems, or additional needs.

But children from a whole range of backgrounds can be exploited. County lines is a system of organised crime where children are used to move money, drugs and weapons across the country. Children are recruited from rural and coastal towns – not just big cities.

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

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What support is out there?

Loving parents can find themselves powerless to keep their children safe outside the home. A criminal group is a formidable force for them to face. Often, they have no idea where to go for help or are told they don’t meet the threshold for support.

Schools and social services, mostly set up to safeguard children from abuse at home, can struggle to provide children with the support they need to successfully escape exploitation.

Boy sat down in a support appointment with a woman

Exploited young people often encounter the police. Sometimes, they are spotted as victims of exploitation and offered support. But this chance is often missed.

Early intervention services can provide targeted, expert support to help children at risk find a positive path forward, away from criminality.

For over ten years, we’ve been running services to help young people at risk of exploitation move away from criminality. This is now running across Scotland as well as Newcastle, Cardiff and Flintshire. Through our pioneering programme, staff with shared experiences build powerful connections with young people. They understand what young people are going through. They show that a hopeful future is possible.

The change that’s needed

In November 2023, Action for Children launched the Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children. We heard testimonies from young people, parents and our practitioners, as well as a range of organisations and senior leaders, including the Children’s Commissioners for each nation.

We’re calling for change in how the UK prevents, and responds to, the criminal exploitation of children.

Boy standing outside in a garden on the phone to someone

The review was chaired by Professor Alexis Jay CBE. Professor Jay is the Chair of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (CELCIS) in Scotland. She was previously the author of the 2014 Inquiry report into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, and the Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, an eight-year public inquiry which delivered its final recommendations to government in October 2022.

Professor Jay was supported by Simon Bailey CBE QPM, is former Chief Constable of Norfolk and was the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection. He is also former member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Also on the Review panel was Charles Geekie KC, a barrister with two decades’ experience specialising in areas of the law relating to children, and an Action for Children Trustee.

With over four days worth of hearings in November, the report has managed to gather the following information:

70 organisations and individuals

have provided evidence

100,000 words +

worth of written evidence

25 hours

of evidence from witnesses
The Jay Review

We’ve commissioned a review into how we can end the crisis of children being criminally exploited.

Read the report (opens in a new tab)

We want to see:

  • A ‘welfare-first’ response to offences committed by criminally exploited young people. Victims of exploitation are entitled to legal protections from the criminal justice system - so they have e chance to rebuild their futures.
  • New powers for the police and courts to see adults who exploit children face justice – ensuring the exploiters answer for their crimes.
  • A new statutory definition of criminal exploitation of children, alongside a national plan to prevent the exploitation of children, led by the UK government – to transform and join up how all services keep children safe.
  • Funding for early intervention services to support children and their families, before they’re trapped in exploitation – so there is somewhere to go for 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)