1.3.12 Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation


This chapter should be read in conjunction with the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures, Child Sexual Exploitation Procedure.


Sheffield Sexual Health Services


Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017)

What to do if you think a Child is being Abused - guidance to help practitioners identify the signs of child abuse and neglect and understand what action to take.

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: A Resource Pack for Councils (Local Government Association) - includes case studies

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue.

Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century, Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum, 2014

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

Barnardo's - Child Sexual Exploitation - resources and research on Child Sexual Exploitation.

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: Progress Report - gives an update on action the government is taking to deal with child sexual exploitation.

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation - College of Policing

Child Sexual Abuse - The Children's Commissioner


In May 2018, the above links to related national guidance were updated. In Section 1, Introduction, the definition was updated to take account of the change of definition in: Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE February 2017). Section 4. Referring Cases of Concern was amended in line with local practice.

1. Introduction

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. Working Together to Safeguard Children.

See also Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE 2017). This advice is non-statutory, and has been produced to help practitioners to identify child sexual exploitation and take appropriate action in response. This advice includes the management, disruption and prosecution of perpetrators.

Child sexual exploitation takes different forms - from a seemingly 'consensual' relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, affection, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. Child sexual exploitation involves differing degrees of abusive activities, including coercion, intimidation or enticement, unwanted pressure from peers to have sex, sexual bullying (including cyber bullying), and grooming for sexual activity. There is increasing concern about the role of technology in Sexual Abuse, including via social networking and other internet sites and mobile phones. The key issue in relation to child sexual exploitation is the imbalance of power within the 'relationship'. The perpetrator always has power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.

Many children and young people are groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some young people are engaged in informal economies that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty. Some young people have been bullied and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gangs which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.

Children and young people may have already been sexually exploited before they are referred to children's social care; others may become targets of perpetrators whilst living at home or during placements. They are often the focus of perpetrators of Sexual Abuse due to their vulnerability. All staff and foster carers should therefore create an environment which educates children and young people about child sexual exploitation, involving relevant outside agencies where appropriate. They should encourage them to discuss any such concerns with them, another member of staff, or with someone from a specialist child sexual exploitation project, and also feel able to share any such concerns about their friends.

The National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People defines sexual exploitation as:

'Sexual exploitation of children and young people under 18 involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive 'something' (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities. Child sexual exploitation can occur through use of technology without the child's immediate recognition; for example the persuasion to post sexual images on the internet / mobile phones with no immediate payment or gain. In all cases, those exploiting the child / young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and / or economic or other resources. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person's limited availability of choice resulting from their social / economic and / or emotional vulnerability'.

2. Indicators of Possible Sexual Exploitation

Staff and foster carers should receive training on child sexual exploitation, and therefore be aware of the key indicators of child sexual exploitation. They include:


  • Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault);
  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections;
  • Pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion;
  • Evidence of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse;
  • Sexually risky behaviour.


  • Truancy/disengagement with education or considerable change in performance at school.

Emotional and Behavioural Issues

  • Volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language;
  • Involvement in petty crime such as shoplifting, stealing;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • Reports of being seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation;
  • Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behaviour, e.g. cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity.


  • Hostility in relationships with staff, family members as appropriate and significant others;
  • Physical aggression;
  • Placement breakdown;
  • Reports from reliable sources (e.g. family, friends or other professionals) suggesting the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation;
  • Detachment from age-appropriate activities;
  • Associating with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited;
  • Known to be sexually active;
  • Sexual relationship with a significantly older person, or younger person who is suspected of being abusive;
  • Unexplained relationships with older adults;
  • Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults, via the Internet;
  • Phone calls, text messages or letters from unknown adults;
  • Adults or older youths loitering outside the home;
  • Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation;
  • Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for in spite of having no known home base;
  • Missing for long periods, with no known home base;
  • Going missing and being found in areas where they have no known links.

Please note: Whilst the focus is often on older men as perpetrators, younger men and women may also be involved and staff should be aware of this possibility.

Social Presentation

  • Change in appearance;
  • Going out dressed in clothing unusual for them (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people).

Family and Environmental Factors

  • History of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parental difficulties.


  • Pattern of previous street homelessness;
  • Having keys to premises other than those known about.


  • Possession of large amounts of money with no plausible explanation;
  • Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phones or other possessions without plausible explanation;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding.

This list is not exhaustive.

Staff and foster carers should be aware that many children and young people who are sexually exploited do not see themselves as victims. In such situations, discussions with them about concerns should be handled with great sensitivity. Seeking prior advice from specialist agencies may be useful. This should not involve disclosing personal, identifiable information at this stage.

In assessing whether a child or young person is a victim of sexual exploitation, or at risk, careful consideration should be given to the issue of consent. It is important to bear in mind that:

  • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sex (it is statutory rape) or any other type of sexual touching;
  • Sexual activity with a child under 16 is also an offence;
  • It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them;
  • Where sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old does not result in an offence being committed, it may still result in harm, or the likelihood of harm being suffered;
  • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim; and
  • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or his or her family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore offences may have been committed;
  • Child sexual exploitation is therefore potentially a child protection issue for all children under the age of 18 years and not just those in a specific age group.

The child sexual exploitation training staff and foster carers receive should also include what information should be given to the police in such cases, for example vehicle registration numbers, names, physical descriptions. It may also include what action staff should take in the case of suspected sexual or physical abuse in order to protect potential evidence, which may be useful in the case of an alleged perpetrator being prosecuted.

3. Children and Young People who go Missing

A significant number of children and young people who are being sexually exploited may go Missing from home or care, and education. Some go missing frequently; the more often they go missing the more vulnerable they are to being sexually exploited. If a child does go missing, the Children Missing from Home or Care Procedure should be followed (see Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Child Protection and Safeguarding Procedures, Sheffield Procedures for Responding to Children who go Missing from Home or Care (July 2019)).

Independent Return Interviews with the child or young person undertaken in Sheffield by the voluntary sector, can help in establishing why they went missing and the subsequent support that may be required, as well as preventing repeat incidents. Information gathered from return interviews can be used to inform the identification, Referral and Assessment of any child sexual exploitation cases. The police will also undertake a "Safe and Well" visit with the child or young person.

4. Referring Cases of Concern

See Initial Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

Where any professional identifies indicators of risk which suggest a child or young person may be involved in, or at risk of sexual exploitation, they should contact the Children's Social Care screening team (Sheffield Safeguarding Hub) immediately. The referrer must be able to evidence areas of concern and clearly outline why they feel the child or young person is vulnerable in the context of the definition of child sexual exploitation (National Working Group definition). Where insufficient evidence is provided regarding the risk of exploitation the referrer should continue to support the young person and be vigilant of any safeguarding concerns and gather any additional information which may evidence their concerns.

On receipt of a referral regarding a child or young person the member of staff in Children's Social Care Safeguarding hub must consider the information presented by the referrer against the child sexual exploitation screening tool. The screening social worker will be responsible for making the appropriate referral, dependent on where the child or young person referred falls within the continuum of need. All contacts and actions should be promptly recorded, and where existing professional relationships are present, those workers should be informed of the referral and asked if they have any concerns and be advised of the outcome of the referral.

Referrals which fall within the boundary of universal on the continuum of need will most likely not require specialist intervention or social care input.

Cases which meet the level of Vulnerable or above will be passed to the CSE team and triaged to the most appropriate support service.

Where concerns regarding a child or young person identifies that individual as having complex or acute needs the case should be referred by the screening Social Worker to the sexual exploitation service for a specialist assessment based on risk.

Where concerns are raised regarding child sexual exploitation and the criteria are met for a strategy discussion this should take place within the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub and follow the Section 47 Joint Investigation Team Partnership Protocol. The sexual exploitation service will provide guidance and specialist knowledge to any professionals with concerns regarding child sexual exploitation but all referrals must be made to the screening teams.

5. Supporting Children and Young People out of Child Sexual Exploitation

Sheffield has a co-located, multi-agency sexual exploitation service which is responsible for supporting those young people involved, or most at risk of child sexual exploitation.

Following the specialist assessment carried out by the service, children and young people who are deemed to require support should be allocated a worker from the service and a Sexual Exploitation Service initial meeting arranged. This meeting should involve the child or young person, their parents/carers and all relevant professionals. The aim of this meeting is to agree a plan of support, which should involve the child or young person's views and those of the parents/carers.

The intervention agreed should be tailored to the individual needs of each case and should be appropriate to the needs of the child or young person and take full account of identified risk factors and individual circumstances.

The service's support is based on a youth work model and is a voluntary arrangement between the child or young person and the service. The aim of the support is to engage and educate each client to be able to identify risks and make informed choices, as well as being able to identify their needs and ensure they are met appropriately.

Support from the sexual exploitation service should remain in place until such time as the child or young person has been supported out of exploitative situations or the risk has been reduced.

Where a child or a young person is already subject to a care plan e.g. Child Protection Plan/looked after plan the work identified by the sexual exploitation service should form part of such plan.

6. Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators

The police and criminal justice agencies lead on the identification and prosecution of perpetrators. All practitioners, however, have a role in gathering, recording and sharing information with the police and other agencies, as appropriate and in agreement with them.

Staff and foster carers should bear in mind that sexual exploitation often does not occur in isolation and has links to other crime types, including:

  • Child trafficking (into, out of and within the UK);
  • Domestic Violence and Abuse;
  • Sexual violence in intimate relationships;
  • Grooming (both online and offline);
  • Abusive images of children and their distribution (organised abuse);
  • Organised sexual abuse of children;
  • Drugs-related offences (dealing, consuming and cultivating);
  • Gang-related activity;
  • Immigration-related offences;
  • Domestic servitude.

Where alleged perpetrators are arrested and charged with offences against children or young people, allocated staff and foster carers should ensure they are supported throughout the prosecution process and beyond. Specialist agencies should be involved in supporting the child or young person, as required. This may include using special measures to protect them when giving evidence in court for example. Independent Sexual Violence Advisers or specialist voluntary sector services, if available, may also have an important role to play.

8. Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme

The Child Sex Offender Review (CSOR) Disclosure Scheme is designed to provide members of the public with a formal mechanism to ask for disclosure about people they are concerned about, who have unsupervised access to children and may therefore pose a risk. This scheme builds on existing, well established third-party disclosures that operate under the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child's interests.

The scheme has been operating in all 43 police areas in England and Wales since 2010. The scheme is managed by the Police and information can only be accessed through direct application to them.

If a disclosure is made, the information must be kept confidential and only used to keep the child in question safe. Legal action may be taken if confidentiality is breached. A disclosure is delivered in person (as opposed to in writing) with the following warning:

  • 'That the information must only be used for the purpose for which it has been shared i.e. in order to safeguard children;
  • The person to whom the disclosure is made will be asked to sign an undertaking that they agree that the information is confidential and they will not disclose this information further;
  • A warning should be given that legal proceedings could result if this confidentiality is breached. This should be explained to the person and they must sign the undertaking' (Home Office, 2011, p16).

If the person is unwilling to sign the undertaking, the police must consider whether the disclosure should still take place.

9. Further Information

Further information regarding sexual exploitation can be found in the Sheffield Safeguarding Sexual Exploitation policy (see Sheffield Safeguarding Procedures Manual, Sexual Exploitation Procedure).

Additional information includes:

  • Trafficking and the National Referral Mechanism;
  • The Grooming process;
  • Risks Associated with Computers and Mobile phones;
  • Evidence Gathering and information Sharing;
  • Boys and young men;
  • Looked After Children;
  • Residential care;
  • Role of the Police.