Over the past two years there has been a sharp increase in the number of children identified as victims of trafficking in the UK. Learn how to recognise and understand child exploitation, and where to go for more information and advice.
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How can I recognise child exploitation?
Skipping school or going missing, 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.
How do I know a young person is being exploited, and not just navigating growing up?
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all be very different, depending on the child and situation – from becoming more confident to becoming violent or more withdrawn. Sleep deprivation and skipping school can also be indicators that a child is at risk.
If you are worried, ask your child what is going on. But remember, they might not be willing or able to talk about it.
Could it be more than antisocial behaviour?
Often, exploitation isn’t recognised. Instead, people recognise signs of criminality, or see that a young person is forming a bond with someone older.
Ask yourself whether the young person could be being exploited and forced to do things they don’t want to do.
There are no signs of violence or coercion. Sometimes there are even gifts or money being brought home. Should I be concerned?
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 control and coerce their victims into doing what they want.
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.
Due to sophisticated grooming methods, it is possible that a child will not recognise their situation as exploitative.
Examples of what a child might hear from an exploiter:
“You’re special to me.”
“No one will understand you like I do.”
“Only what I say is important.”
“If you really cared about your family, you'd put food on the table.”
“Remember that money I gave you? I need it back now. You’re my friend, right? You owe me.”
Should I be worried even if a young person says everything is fine?
Children rarely understand themselves to be a victim of exploitation or trafficking. Remember that this is not the child’s fault, and it is not their responsibility to figure these things out. As adults, we can look out for the young people in our lives.
There are many reasons a child might not identify as a victim. Grooming, fear, denial, loyalty, shame, embarrassment, feeling trapped, and pride can all play a role.
If you feel something isn’t right, there are organisations out there providing free support and advice.
Advice and Support
For more information on child exploitation in the UK, please contact the following organisations where you will receive confidential support and advice.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is a charity campaigning and working in child protection in the United Kingdom and Channel Islands.
SPACE - Stop & Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation
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.
ECPAT UK is a children's rights organisation working to protect children from trafficking and exploitation. The youth program only accepts referrals of young people living within Greater London.
Young Minds are a young people’s mental health organisation. If you are a parent or carer worried about a child or young person, you can refer to Young Minds’ resources for parents or speak to an expert at the Parents Helpline. Starting a conversation with your child: https://youngminds.org.uk/starting-a-conversation-with-your-child/
Local Authorities - Children Services (London)
The London Safeguarding Children Partnership seeks to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children in London. If you are concerned that a child may be at risk of harm, please contact your local authority children’s social care team.