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Wisdom Wednesdays: Child exploitation and criminal behaviour

For the upcoming Child Exploitation Awareness Day, the latest Wisdom Wednesday blog focuses on child exploitation and criminal behaviour and why we need to recognise that many young people involved in criminal activity are victims of grooming and violence.

17 March 2021

Child exploitation is not defined by law and has no official definition but there are many definitions and the most widely known types are child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child criminal exploitation (CCE). One definition of child exploitation is when an abuser takes advantage of a young person for their own personal gain.

Both these types of exploitation occur when an individual or a group takes advantage of a young person under the age of 18 in exchange for something the victim needs or wants. In both cases, the victim is exploited even if it appears consensual. Catch22 supports victims of child exploitation with our Missing and Child Exploitation Services. The issue of child exploitation is a significant one as the National Youth Agency’s 2020 report found that 60,000 young people, aged 10–17, identify as a gang member or know a gang member who is a relative. This number becomes 450,000 when including young people exposed to ‘risky behaviour’ associated with gangs.

What is grooming and how does it happen?

To recognise the criminal exploitation of young people, it is important to look at how they are introduced to this lifestyle. Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults  found that ‘patterns of grooming of children for criminal exploitation are very similar to those of sexual exploitation’. This grooming can happen when an older person approaches a vulnerable child and offers them money, gifts like new trainers, all with the aim of making them feel popular and wanted. These children are targeted because they are known to be vulnerable and then recruited to commit crimes like County Lines.

The UK Government defines county lines as:

A term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK. They are likely to exploit children to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

The children who are exploited often don’t recognise they are being groomed because of how young they are. As adults, it’s very clear that a 25-year-old approaching a 13-year-old to build any relationship is problematic, which is why many of those who were exploited as children can identify grooming when they’re older. Children who are exploited into crime must be recognised as victims because, if they aren’t, it starts a cycle of them becoming criminals who exploit and victimise others, as perpetrators of CCE themselves might have been criminally exploited as children.

How does Catch22 support children exploited into crime?

As well as CCE and CSE services, Catch22 offers prevention and intervention services for young people at risk of criminal exploitation like the Wolverhampton Violence Reduction Community Team.

The team aims to increase self-awareness and self-worth in young people, so they make positive changes and move away from gangs into positive destinations like education or training. They offer emotional and practical support – providing opportunities that help young people to reach their potential. The approach uses a three-tier model of prevention and education, core interventions, engagement and monitoring. This approach works in the community, with support not only for the young people, but also for the school staff and families. This is important for tackling child exploitation as the young people are recognised as needing help and works towards stopping the process and cycle of getting involved in crime and victimising others in the future. Catch22 offers more services like this under Gangs and Violence Reduction.

Why are these children exploited?

Children who are groomed and criminally exploited are often already vulnerable to other types of abuse or neglect. Over one million young people are at risk from at least one of these in their home setting: addiction, mental health and domestic abuse. This can result in a child finding ‘home’ in the wrong places and people, without a guardian or carer to redirect them away from the appealing security of attention, money and gifts they receive from committing crimes.

Children that are missing from education is another reason that contributes to their risk factor. There are 700,000 young people that are persistently absent from school, not in education, employment or training. This has been made worse by schools being closed during lockdowns and youth centres closing permanently.

There are other factors that contribute to children falling vulnerable to grooming and criminal exploitation, like poverty, deprivation, special educational needs and learning difficulties. With poverty and deprivation, this can create pressures at home and children might see that crimes like selling drugs and county lines gives them money, and in their eyes, a solution for their family’s problems.

Overall, these factors have huge impact by making children vulnerable which can lead to them being exploited. If we recognise children as victims early on, then we can provide them with the support and direction they need to live positive, crime free lives. There are challenges however to getting these children recognised as victims as the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults say ‘in the past, child sexual exploitation was often perceived amongst professionals as the victim’s fault, or due to their risky behaviour. We believe that in some areas of the UK a similar culture currently exists around criminal exploitation by gangs.’ However, the perception of child sexual exploitation has massively progressed with the movement to condemning victim blaming. We want to see this also afforded to child criminal exploitation.

There is good work being done to help children that are criminally exploited across the country. However, there is still the need to recognise them as victims of grooming as well as more underlying abuse. If they are not, it will impact them adversely in a number of ways. One being living a criminal lifestyle as they get older and continuing the cycle of exploiting young people, like they were, into crime.


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