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Child exploitation

How do you recognise a victim of child exploitation?

A young girl, sitting at a school desk, looks thoughtfully out of the window, holding a pencil in their hand as they rest their head on their hand. Other students can be seen in the background.

There is no simple answer to this question, largely because there are many forms of child exploitation, and all young people respond differently depending on their individual experiences and circumstances.

A range of techniques

Perpetrators often use different processes to groom young people, such as encouraging drug use or alcohol use, showering them with gifts and affection or offers of protection. All of this is done with the intention of lowering inhibitions and controlling the young person. There are often threats and use of violence against the young person or someone close to them, again to manipulate and control them for personal gains.


Young people who are being exploited can sometimes be misinterpreted as troublemakers. Quite often, perpetrators will target a young person who has existing vulnerabilities and/or who comes from a disadvantaged area known for higher levels of crime. This can lead to them being criminalised by police rather than being provided with the support they need.

We see examples every day of victims of child exploitation being criminalised with charges such as drug trafficking, money laundering and are often labelled with child blaming language. Too many young people are dismissed as troublemakers: someone with a drug problem, in a gang, being anti-social or wasting police time.

Yet these young people are first and foremost victims – being groomed, coerced and threatened by their perpetrators to carry out illegal activity.

Defining the term ‘victim’

When we use the term ‘victim’, we often picture someone who is afraid and withdrawn from society. We assume that people know when they’re a victim. However, many of the young people we support who are being exploited actually feel like they are in control. They feel they have made the choice to be in that situation, such is the power and control a perpetrator has over them. This is often why young people affected by child exploitation do not report the abuse that is happening to them.

Spotting the signs

This only strengthens the need for professionals, parent, carers and anyone working with young people to better understand and remain curious to out of character behaviours. A young people may go missing, they may appear loud, aggressive and confident or referred to or be regularly referred to by their peers as ‘street wise’. Alternatively, they may become suddenly secretive and may have a second phone or receive unexplained gifts. These changes in behaviour may mean a child or young person is a victim of child exploitation.

Explaining behaviours

There are many complex reasons a young people can act this way. They can often be very protective of their perpetrators and see them as a friend or even a lover. They could be physically threatened, receive threats to their family or be told that they are the ones who would get in trouble with the police. Young people often feel they are to blame for their abuse and might not believe that telling someone would actually be effective and result in change.

These reasons all contribute towards why it can be difficult to identify a victim of child exploitation and to seek support for them.

Specialist teams

Catch22 have specialist teams across the country who provide support to victims of child exploitation. Young people react in different ways depending on their individual circumstances and what abuse they have experienced and as such we don’t have prescriptive ways of supporting.

The one-to-one support we provide is not time-limited and is tailored to each and every young person. Case support workers help them to understand and recognise that they have been groomed and exploited; that what’s happening to them is not their fault. They then work with them to help rebuild their confidence, self-esteem and begin to look at the future more positively, equipping them with the tools and knowledge to do this.

Seeking help

If you are worried about a young person or would like to know more about how you can spot the signs of exploitation, please have a look at our resources on Spotting the Signs. If you’re a teacher or parents of a secondary school-aged child, have a look at our free resources for schools.

And of course you can get in touch with one of our many services at Catch22 working with young people affected by exploitation.

– Marc Stevens, Senior Service Manager – Risk and Resilience