June 8, 2021 Learning and Reflections, Programme Blogs, Reconfiguration of services

Reflections: Opportunities for how a system shift in practices and policies would support improved safeguarding for child victims of exploitation and improved prosecutions of adult offenders who exploit them


It is widely recognised that tackling, disrupting and, most importantly, prosecuting offences of modern slavery – specifically those linked to child criminal exploitation (CCE) – remains a significant challenge. 

In the policy arena, the government’s new Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, alongside building capacity in policing through the National County Lines Coordination Centre and Tackling Organised Exploitation Programme, commits to take firm action to disrupt child exploitation. Yet tackling these pernicious offences requires a multi-layered and systemic approach to change and continual improvement.

There are many reasons why this is always going to be a challenge. Considering the start of the exploitation and grooming process, where too often early warning signs are there but not able to be acted on due to a combination of resource constraints, workforce capability and capacity, and tactics of the exploiter in encouraging young people to refuse or withdraw from support designed to protect them.

However, there are also many points along the exploitation journey where a system shift in the practices and policies would support improved safeguarding for child victims of exploitation and improved prosecutions of adult offenders who exploit them.

One example is how the Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme has been supporting local areas to identify, share, collect, digest and act on data to support strategic leaders to disrupt exploitation more effectively. There is no silver bullet ‘data set’ that can tell us the scale of CCE. However, proxies do exist that highlight an increasingly identifiable group of young people[1]:

  • Figures for Child In Need assessments show ‘gangs’ were highlighted on 14,700 assessments in 2020, a rise from 10,960 in 2019[2].

  • Statistics for the National Referral Mechanism show a comparable rise, with over 5,100 children referred between 1 October 2019 and 31 September 2020, over 2,500 of which were due to concerns of criminal exploitation. Despite these high and rising numbers, prosecutions remain stubbornly low[3].

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on this. We are identifying a cohort of young people at risk or vulnerable to ‘gangs’ (a term which undoubtedly places some blame on the young person themselves), but we are not identifying a comparable number of young people at risk due to CCE. Our mind-set as well as our data needs to change.

Another example is within the Disrupting Exploitation Programme, led by The Children’s Society and funded by The National Lottery Community Fund. The programme has focused on key reachable moments in a young person’s journey through the system to alter the experience and responses to young people who have been criminally exploited. One of these moments, identified through frontline practice and the experience of young people, is when a young person is arrested for crimes linked or attributable to their exploitation. For example, when a young person is arrested for Possession with Intent to Supply (PWITS) and, rather than being prosecuted, is supported through a multi-agency and whole family intervention. 

It remains the case that, too, often this moment follows a predictable trajectory of a decision to charge, criminal proceedings and associated outcomes. When the criminal activity is happening through exploitation, there will be a young person (and often their family also) with a growing distrust and scepticism of a system that sees and treats them as a perpetrator, rather than a victim of exploitation (although often young people can be both).

The legislative framework underpinning this trajectory is complex and, in places, patchy, not sufficiently tailored to the realities of the crimes being committed against young people[4]. There is currently no statutory definition of CCE. And it remains the case that, operationally, the term can become synonymous with the County Lines model of exploitation, meaning young people who commit other offences such as theft are not always considered to be victims of CCE. This is slowly changing through increased training and the sharing of good practice in identifying victims.  

Often key to how a young person is perceived in the criminal justice system is whether or not they are recognised through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)[5] as a victim of trafficking. Whilst this process is not legally required to access the section 45 defence in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, it is often perceived to be so. A recent High Court decision (DPP v. M) has confirmed the value of the NRM in criminal proceedings[6]

After a young person (M) was arrested and charged, the young person received a conclusive grounds decision on the NRM identifying them as a victim of trafficking.  This was submitted into evidence but later challenged by the prosecution. The importance of this case was that the NRM decision was deemed admissible in court due in part to the expertise involved in NRM decision-making. Decisions on the NRM are made by the Single Competent Authority – for both child and adult victims – where staff are fully trained to help identify victims of human trafficking.

Across The Children’s Society, we hope this ruling provides a moment of reflection to question where criminal cases are pursued inappropriately to the detriment of longer term safeguarding.

We know as a starting point that building awareness of the NRM amongst statutory agencies – who have a legal duty as first responders to refer to the NRM – is key, as is improving awareness of the process more generally. Embedding awareness of the NRM into social work and police curricula, and continued professional development, is critical to the longer-term approach to tackling exploitation. 

Crucially, it can also help build an evidence base for modern slavery prosecutions when intelligence is smartly joined up across the system. After all, we know that working at both ends of the system – early intervention, disruption and prosecution of adult offenders – is necessary to meaningfully and sustainably disrupt child exploitation. 


[1] It is important to note that not all young people at risk of or being exploited are identified in data and that some groups are disproportionately represented.

[2] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/data-tables/fast-track/0247c828-2398-4d34-8b98-08d884b70554

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-referral-mechanism-statistics

[4] https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/information/professionals/resources/disrupting-exploitation-proposal-change

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/human-trafficking-victims-referral-and-assessment-forms/guidance-on-the-national-referral-mechanism-for-potential-adult-victims-of-modern-slavery-england-and-wales#:~:text=The%20National%20Referral%20Mechanism%20(%20NRM,involve%20multiple%20forms%20of%20exploitation.

[6] https://www.2bedfordrow.co.uk/modern-slavery-the-section-45-defence-and-the-national-referral-mechanism-clarity-at-last-by-rhys-rosser/

Joining the Dots
Our collective knowledge of and understanding of child exploitation is still a developing field. Ideas and examples from across the sector and beyond may help bring a fresh new perspective or unlock a problem. The resources below are part of this rich conversation...
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