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Child exploitation

Why exploited children must be treated as victims

Teenage girl sits in the library at school looking at a project with bookshelves in the background.

Any exploited child – whether sexually or criminally exploited – must be treated and cared for as a victim of crime. Far too often, these young people are treated as criminals themselves.

The Children’s Commissioner released a report into child exploitation, vulnerability, and gang involvement earlier this year. In it, she made the important point that by just treating the young people in gangs as criminals, we miss the fact that they are very often victims of crimes themselves first. There are significant parallels between young victims of child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation; in fact we’ve produced a poster (‘Different Dangers, Same Signs’) which professionals can download to understand the issue better.

We gathered the thoughts of our operational teams on today’s report, and on the wider issue:

Naomi Hulston, Chief Operating Officer, commented: 

“We will not stop child exploitation in gangs by punishing those who have been groomed. Instead, society must put our resources into protecting young people and raising a generation who feel confident to say ‘no’ to gangs. All exploited children, whether sexually or criminally exploited, must be treated as victims first and foremost. We must treat the trauma that they have experienced to help them live positive lives.

“At Catch22 we welcome the safeguarding approach that the commissioner recommends in today’s report. The report reflects what we see this in our work every day- that groomed young people face challenges in many areas of their lives. Catch22 believe that everybody needs the same three things to thrive: good people around then, a safe place to live and a purpose in life. If any of these elements are missing, a young person becomes more at risk of exploitation. Everybody working with children must help them build strong and trusted relationships with positive adults, ensure they have places to go where they can feel safe and provide clear routes to success away from gangs and crime.”

Sarah Parker, Research and Development Officer, commented:

“The link with children going missing is clear. Not every child reported missing is being exploited, but almost every child being exploited will be reported missing at some stage, often multiple times. This highlights the importance of effective missing interventions, and ideally of missing services and CE services being at least co-located if not co-commissioned.

“The high level of school exclusions is clearly contributing to the vulnerability of children. Every exclusion – even temporary, short-term – leaves a child less protected: there is often inadequate adult supervision, too little to do, a weakened friendship network and lower educational outcomes. This is a toxic mix for a child at a key moment in their lives. Two hours of schooling per day is not enough to support that child, especially when the alternative appears to be status, money, access to drugs.”