While we should celebrate every child rescued and every perpetrator stopped, it pays to remember that this is a huge and growing issue in the UK. We are about to launch a child exploitation awareness and prevention campaign that aims to help caregivers identify possible indicators of child exploitation including county lines. Here’s some key information that is worth knowing.
There were 4,946 children referred to the NRM as victims of trafficking in 2020. This is up 10% from the year before, and is a problem that COVID-19 is likely to have exacerbated.
Force or coercion can be used in recruitment, however recruitment often occurs through family ties and networks, in-person to gain trust and/or by targeting specific locations where vulnerable people might be. The grooming might start through a promise of work, through gifts, through a promise of accommodation, care, or belonging.
Self-identifying as a victim of trafficking and exploitation is rare among children, and the tactics of control used by traffickers aren’t always immediately evident. Children will often deny exploitation is happening, and there are many reasons they might not identify as a victim. Grooming, fear, denial, loyalty, shame, embarrassment, feeling trapped, and pride can all play a role.
It is natural for any person, particularly a young person finding their feet in the world, to want to be loved, respected, understood and appreciated in their community. Exploiters may go to great lengths to identify and satisfy the emotional and/or material needs of a child in order to win their trust, offering their targets affection, emotional support, gifts or money. Once exploiters have gained a child’s trust, they may use emotional manipulation to groom, control and coerce their victims into doing what they want.
Traffickers use methods such as building psychological dependence, false loyalty, making false promises, shame, fear, loyalty, blackmail, sexual violence the withholding of food, shelter or substances.
In some situations, an exploiter may make a child believe they have a debt to pay back for the gifts and favours that they may have received. When this happens, the child falls into a situation where they are forced to ‘pay back’ this perceived debt.
A child who is being groomed or exploited may show drastic changes in behaviour, and these can all be very different, depending on the child and situation.
Skipping school, forming relationships with older people, changes in personality, behaving strangely around their phone, physical injuries, sleep deprivation, coming home with unexplained gifts or money, being in possession of a large quantity of drugs, using unexpected sexual, drug-related or violent language, having keys to hotels or unknown properties, the arrival of unexplained bank statements…
These can all be signs that a child is at risk of exploitation or being exploited by someone. Think about who is gaining most from the interactions that the child is having. If it is not the child, then it could be exploitation.
It’s important to be mindful that lots of the signs of potential exploitation are difficult to identify. Many of the indicators above are common traits within adolescents, so how do you know if a child is a young person is being exploited and not just navigating growing up?
If you are worried, ask your child what is going on. But remember, they might not be willing or able to talk about it.
If you feel like something isn’t right, there are organisations you can reach out to for advice and support:
SPACE is a specialist organisation launched in response to the prevalence of County Lines driven Child Criminal Exploitation. It works to improve the response to victims by campaigning, raising awareness and providing training to statutory responders and communities. The organisation offers guidance and assistance to affected parents and carers and an expert witness service.
Contact | Website
The NSPCC has created free resources on spotting the signs of child abuse and on how to talk to your child about online safety.
0808 800 5000 | nspcc.org.uk
A children’s and young people’s mental health charity with resources, toolkits and training on mental wellbeing.
@YoungMindsUK | youngminds.org.uk/resources/
If you would like the learn more about child exploitation in the UK, you might be interested in this free resource from ECPAT UK.