Shattered lives, stolen futures: The Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children

Thursday 21 March 2024
Criminal exploitation of children - report cover image

Tens of thousands of children and young people are at risk of being exploited across the UK – groomed, coerced and threatened into a life of violence, criminalisation and abuse. A new approach is needed to end this crisis.

Read the executive summary

Launching the Jay Review

In response to this crisis, Action for Children launched the Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children in November 2023. Our aim was to learn from what’s working well to protect children from exploitation and determine what more can be done.

Read the Review report in full

“I slept with one eye and one ear open for years and years.”

Vicky, parent

The Review was chaired by Professor Alexis Jay CBE, chair of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection and former chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Professor Jay was supported by Simon Bailey CBE QPM, the former Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and a member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel from 2021-2024, and Charles Geekie KC, a barrister specialising in areas of the law relating to children and a Trustee of Action for Children.

All children should have a safe and loving childhood

Help us reach more care experienced young people

Donate now

The Review heard 25 hours of evidence from witnesses in person and via video footage and received 100,000 words of evidence in total

Evidence was given by 70 organisations or individuals, including young people, parents and mentors with lived experience of exploitation. A wide range of practitioners and senior leaders have contributed – from children’s services, education, local government, charities, inspectorates, academia and the police and youth justice systems across the UK, including the Children’s Commissioners from all four nations.

Girl standing up looking sad into camera next to curtains

What we learned

The facts of criminal exploitation paint a stark picture: thousands of children and young people across the country are controlled and manipulated by criminal gangs, while countless more are at risk. The toll on these young lives is immeasurable, leading to serious physical harm, long-term trauma and criminalisation. Children are paying with their freedom, their childhoods and their lives.

No child should be at the mercy of criminals

Exploited children deserve to be kept safe

Join our campaign (opens in a new tab)

Key lessons

As we listened to those with lived experience, to professionals and to experts from across the four nations of the UK, a number of key lessons stood out:

  • The absence of a clear and consistent definition of the criminal exploitation of children is a barrier to protecting and supporting them.
  • Existing legislation and criminal processes are not fit for purpose and are leading to vulnerable children being failed.
  • Too many exploited children are treated as criminals rather than victims and do not receive a child protection response.
  • The lack of data on exploitation makes it more difficult to identify, prevent and respond to it.
  • School is an essential protective factor in children’s lives but education providers do not always have the right tools to identify and support children at risk.
  • Local safeguarding arrangements are not always effective in supporting children at risk of extra-familial harm (or harm outside their family home), including exploitation.
  • Early intervention is essential to prevent and disrupt exploitation but a decade of funding cuts in early intervention services has restricted the ability of services to respond.
  • Serious, preventable harm to children is being caused by a lack of national leadership. There is no consistent strategy, leadership and focus from central government on tackling criminal exploitation as an urgent and preventable crisis.

In 2023, 7,432 referrals relating to children were made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and criminal exploitation, an increase of 45% since 2021.

Boy sat down in a support appointment with a woman

Our recommendations

We recommend that the four nations of the UK work together to create a new approach designed with the explicit purpose of tackling the criminal exploitation of children. This should be built on three pillars:

  • A single, cohesive legal code designed to tackle the criminal exploitation of children. The criminal exploitation of children should be given a statutory definition within UK law with a consultation held with young people and families to develop corresponding guidance. Specific legislation should be drawn up for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland covering child abuse through exploitation and create a new criminal offence. And new powers should be given to the police and criminal justice system to identify and sanction exploiters.
  • Coordinated policy and practice at a local and national level. The UK government should take the lead in developing a national strategy for preventing the criminal exploitation of children. Exploitation must be recognised as a distinct category of child protection in all four nations with a new pathway for protecting children from risk outside the home and local safeguarding arrangements must be robust and well-funded. A welfare-first approach should be taken in the management of offences committed by exploited young people.
  • Investment, research and whole-system learning. Investment and funding for early intervention and prevention services for exploited young people must be specific, increased and ring-fenced. Data and information collection must be standardised to allow for identification of young people at risk and disruption of perpetrators, with a new cross-border protocol for sharing data between the four nations.

“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 experience of exploitation
Support our work near you

Donate, volunteer or raise funds for our work nationwide

Support us