The policy context on Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Department for Education leads on child protection in government, but it shares responsibility for child sexual exploitation (CSE) with the Home Office.

Young people that have experienced abuse in childhood are more at risk of entering into abusive and exploitative relationships. Picture: SPY_studio/
Young people that have experienced abuse in childhood are more at risk of entering into abusive and exploitative relationships. Picture: SPY_studio/

Following a number of high-profile child sexual abuse (CSA) and exploitation revelations, recent policy announcements to tackle the issue have also involved the Department of Health, Ministry of Justice and Department for Communities and Local Government. This cross-government approach both reflects the wide-ranging nature of the risks posed by child sexual abuse and exploitation and the increased recognition the issues have had within government.

On the ground, it is the responsibility of local safeguarding children boards (LSCB) to bring health, social work, education and police professionals together to identify the risks in an area and how to tackle them; while many councils have established multi-agency safeguarding hubs (Mash) to co-ordinate the system-wide response to sexual abuse and exploitation, with a number setting up dedicated CSE teams (see research evidence).

Scale of abuse and exploitation

Revelations in recent years about the existence of paedophile rings involving celebrities and influential institutions have increased media and political attention on child sexual abuse. In addition, the uncovering of grooming and exploitation of children by organised gangs over many years in a number of English cities, most notably Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Birmingham, has propelled CSE to the top of policymakers, agenda.

Despite this, there is little prevalence data on CSA and CSE. Part of the problem stems from the hidden nature of the abuse itself, which leads to cases going unreported, and the fact that some children do not realise they are being exploited (see research evidence).

In 2014/15, there were 30,698 recorded sexual offences against children under 16 in England - or three sexual offences per 1,000 children (a rate of 0.03 per cent). This is 38 per cent higher than the previous year and double the rate of a decade ago (see statistics box).

However, self-reporting studies suggest official figures do not show the full extent of the problem. A 2011 survey by the NSPCC found that 12.5 per cent of 1,761 young people aged 18 to 24 reported being the victim of sexual abuse by an adult or peer. Among the 2,275 11- to 17-year-olds surveyed for the study, 5.1 per cent said they'd been sexually abused. When non-contact sexual abuse was also considered, a quarter of young adults surveyed by the NSPCC reported being victims.

There are no official figures showing the scale of CSE. In the UK, it tends to be viewed as a type of child sexual abuse, including online grooming, trafficking and exploitation by gangs or people in power. The National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, defines CSE as "involving young people under 18 who receive ‘something, (food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of performing, and/or others performing on them, sexual activities".

Despite the lack of official data on CSE, findings from studies have given an indication of the extent of the problem. A Children's Commissioner for England study showed 2,400 children were victims of gang-linked CSE over a 14-month period; in 2011, 2,038 victims of CSE were reported to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop); and Ceop received 1,145 reports of online CSE in 2012.

A public consultation run by the Home Office and DfE this year is set to deliver a new definition of CSE in the autumn. Once introduced, this new definition should help paint a clearer picture on the number of child victims of sexual exploitation.

Vulnerable groups

Research has shown that vulnerable children and those who display risky behaviour are most at risk of being victims of CSA and CSE. Those in council care, who misuse drugs and alcohol and play truant from school are often targeted by abusers and gangs (see research evidence).

An inquiry into the actions of a gang of nine men convicted in 2012 of abusing children in Rochdale found victims were mainly vulnerable teenagers targeted at locations such as shops and bribed with alcohol, drugs and money.

The Jay report, which found 1,400 CSE victims between 1997 and 2013, identified how those living in residential child care were targeted by abusers and groomers.

Research carried out by Barnardo's shows that of 9,000 children whose records for CSE were analysed 18 per cent were in council care. By comparison, just 0.6 per cent of the general child population are looked after.

The study also found that four out of five boys, and four in 10 girls were referred to the organisation for going missing from home (see Bristol Council practice example).

Government response

Key policies to influence practice in tackling child abuse and exploitation over the past five years include:

CSE Action Plan, 2011

The 2011 cross-government national action plan for tackling CSE set out a series of measures to prevent sexual exploitation, disrupt offenders and support victims to aid their recovery. Statutory requirements included monitoring cases of CSE; specific LSCB procedures on it; training on warning signs and prevention; awareness-raising activities; and involving young people in crafting CSE strategies. These measures have led to the creation of regional approaches to tackling CSE, such as in Greater Manchester (see Project Phoenix practice example).

Returning home interviews, 2014

Statutory guidance published by the DfE made it mandatory for a child who runs away from home or goes missing from their residential care placement to be offered an independent return interview by their home local authority.

Innovation funding, 2014-16

Through the Department for Education's £100m children's social care innovation fund, four projects run by voluntary organisations and councils, including Rotherham Council, were allocated £4m to develop new ways of protecting children at risk of, or who have experienced, CSE and supporting victims.

Response to CSE in Rotherham, 2015

In light of the Jay report and subsequent review by government adviser Louise Casey, the Coalition published a response that outlined its plans for tackling the issue. This included creating a national system for reporting child abuse concerns, giving CSA the status of a "national threat" so police prioritised tackling the issue, creation of a centre of expertise to support services, and the extension of the "wilful neglect" offence to children's social care and education professionals, so more would report abuse and exploitation concerns.

Serious Crime Act 2015

The legislation, which received Royal Assent late last year, removed references to "child prostitution" and "child pornography" and replaced them with CSE.

CSE Response Unit, 2016

Through £1.24m of government funding, the DfE has commissioned a new independent body to develop best practice in tackling CSE, which includes receiving support from an expert group of practitioners (see minister's column).

The creation of the CSE Response Unit, updated definition of CSE and publication of the results of the six multi-agency inspections of local CSE arrangements should help safeguarding services and practitioners protect more children from abuse.


By Dave Hill, president of ADCS

The publication of the Jay report in 2014 shone a bright light on child protection. Awareness of the insidious nature of the sexual exploitation of children and young people continues to grow but local authorities cannot tackle this issue alone.

Identifying those who are vulnerable to exploitation is no easy undertaking but there are some excellent examples of partnership working between local authorities, the police, schools and voluntary organisations to address risky behaviour before destructive relationships can form.

We have a culture of shared learning in local government - this summer, the directors of children's services in Rochdale, Rotherham, Bristol and Oxfordshire organised an event in Birmingham to relay the lessons they have learned with sector colleagues. Some of the tools and tactics successfully employed range from the creative use of existing criminal sanctions to the development of multi-agency safeguarding teams like the Sunrise Team in Rochdale. Taxi drivers, bus drivers and hotel staff are also receiving training to help them to be alert to the signs of grooming and exploitation and know what to do when concerns arise.

The government recently launched a consultation on the introduction of a new mandatory reporting duty for professionals. While the intentions behind this proposal are hard to argue with we are worried that this may detract focus from the disruption of criminal activities and the prosecution of perpetrators, particularly as many professionals already face serious sanctions if they knowingly fail to pass on information about suspected abuse.

We believe any available resources would be put to better use by bringing forward the development of the government's new "what works centre" in children's social care to help us get to grips with the underlying reasons why abusers act in this way and to help all safeguarding partners learn from survivors how we can improve our interventions and support.

A public health approach aimed at preventing harm is also required. Children and young people should be helped to understand what healthy relationships look like and recognise the signs and symptoms of grooming.


By Edward Timpson, minister for vulnerable children and families

It's worth reminding ourselves that we do have a child protection system that, in the vast majority of cases, responds well, intervenes appropriately and gets excellent outcomes for the children involved.

But what we also have to face up to is what happens when there are failures in child protection. We've seen how the sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham, Oxford and Birmingham has blighted lives and torn families apart.

To respond to these challenges, we are launching in September a Child Sexual Exploitation Response Unit, backed by £1.24 million of government funding. This unit will ensure specialist support is available to people working in children's safeguarding across the country, enabling them to provide a strong and robust first response to children and families who are victims of CSE.

The unit consists of a team of specialists who offer tailored help to local areas, supporting them to respond appropriately to this form of abuse, while boosting capacity for local areas combatting child sexual exploitation. The team will be supported by a register of leading professionals who can be seconded from their current jobs to support an area with a specific issue. A helpline, online knowledge portal, and training courses will also be provided to ensure staff on the ground are equipped to deal with emerging issues.

It's important that we also learn from what has happened to children who have been abused and exploited. That's why we are legislating through the Children and Social Work Bill to establish a new Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. This will identify and undertake reviews of the most serious incidents that raise issues of national importance, so that findings from them can be properly understood and shared.

Putting children first is everyone's responsibility and there is of course a role for the wider public and local communities. In March, we launched the national ‘Together, we can tackle child abuse, campaign to encourage members of the public to report any concerns they may have about a child, in particular about suspected child abuse and neglect. Over 110 councils have engaged with the campaign so far, and our findings indicate that it is giving people a sense of confidence to report their suspicions. We know it takes time to change opinions and behaviours, which is why we plan to run the campaign again in 2017.

We will continue to work hard to strengthen the child protection system. We must do all we can to identify children who are vulnerable to abuse quickly and get them the help they and their families need. I believe these measures will help build on the many strengths within our child protection system and make vulnerable children safer.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on child sexual abuse and exploitation. Click here for more

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