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Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) – the UK Context

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In the UK, Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is defined by the NSPCC (2021) as a type of sexual abuse, when a child or young person is exploited they’re given things like gifts, drugs, money, status and affection, in exchange for performing sexual activities. The child or young person is often tricked into believing they are in a loving and consensual relationship. This process is referred to as grooming. They may trust their abuser and not understand that they are being abused.

CSE in the UK is a problem that has gained increasing recognition over recent years. The Marshall Inquiry in Northern Ireland in 2014 described CSE as a ‘growing issue’ and children’s charity Barnardo’s states growing numbers of young people are being sexually exploited. The NSPCC’s 2015 analysis of Serious Case Reviews in the UK found certain groups are particularly vulnerable, particularly young women in the care system. The Jay Inquiry in 2014 (after the uncovering of historic child abuse in Rotherham, England) found similar as well as that youth workers had raised concerns about the young women only for the referrals to be dismissed by social workers because of the young women’s chaotic lifestyles prejudicing their assessment of the cases.

In Putting Children First (July 2016) the UK Government set out its ambitions to support vulnerable children to lead safe and positive lives, to become successful adults and to have the kind of happy childhood that we want for all our children. Born out of these case reviews and inquiries has been a vast response to CSE with the establishment of organisations trained to help and support victims (see list of support services below for some examples).

In January 2021, the UK Government released its Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy. This strategy has four key aims:

  • Drawing these hidden crimes out of the shadows by identifying more abuse and safeguarding more children through police recorded crime, children’s social care data and independent inspectorate reports;

  • Bringing more offenders to justice and increasing effective trials for child sexual abuse, based on data from across the criminal justice system;

  • Improving the quality and availability of support for victims and survivors, drawing on insight from delivery and third sector partners; and,

  • Preventing these terrible crimes from happening in the first place based on law enforcement threat assessments and survey data from the Office of National Statistics.

In order to achieve this, the safeguarding of children and young people is a priority with the strategy setting out some key responses in relation to safeguarding. Firstly, safeguarding partnerships drive better multi-agency working, with practitioners able to identify and intervene effectively in child sexual abuse cases. In order to do this, the strategy identifies institutions to complete work with children to prevent offenders from accessing children, and to identify and support those at risk. This will also be achieved through law enforcement agencies having an understanding of safeguarding and vulnerability in order to support victims and survivors appropriately. The strategy draws on a multi-agency and whole system response that brings together agencies, sectors and society to tackle child sexual abuse, as well as a focus on prevention and early intervention, to help protect children and empower professionals, parents and carers to keep them safe. Alongside this, victims and survivors will receive specialized support to help rebuild their lives through boosting services delivered by the voluntary sector as well as through the court process with the new and revised Victims’ Code.

Based on large numbers of reports of child sexual abuse in educational settings to ‘Everyone’s Invited’ (a grassroots website where victims share testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse), there were rising concerns over sexual abuse in schools in the first half of 2021. Ofsted (the regulatory body for schools within the UK) have launched an immediate and full review into schools in response to the thousands of victims sharing their experiences of sexual abuse. The review will focus on safeguarding policies in state and independent schools, considering the severity of the issue and ensuring schools have appropriate processes in place to allow pupils to report concerns freely, knowing these will be taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and appropriately (Department for Education, 2021). The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said:

‘Sexual abuse in any form is abhorrent and it is vital that these allegations are dealt with properly. While the majority of schools take their safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously, I am determined to make sure the right resources and processes are in place across the education system to support any victims of abuse to come forward’.

This governmental response follows on from the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy released earlier in 2021 and outlined above. One aspect of offering further support will be through a new NSPCC helpline specifically aimed at supporting potential victims of sexual harassment and abuse in educational settings.

The UK government has also recognised in recent years that CSE overlaps with other community issues such as child criminal exploitation. For example, in 2016, the Youth Justice Board produced resources on young people’s use of social media that recognized young people’s vulnerability to CSE alongside their risk of being victim to other forms of crime and criminal exploitation online. These resources recommend that those working with young people in youth justice settings understand and use social media in constructive ways with young people.

Through UK research, Firmin and Knowles (2020) have developed the contextual safeguarding model which is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. Contextual safeguarding recognises that the different relationships which young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Contextual safeguarding involves professionals working with young people in these spaces, recognizing that parents and carers having little influence over these contexts, and that young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships (Firmin and Knowles, 2020).

Support services in the UK

Barnardos –

  • They are the largest provider of CSE support in the UK offering a range of confidential support including: one to one counselling, group work and drop in sessions, raising awareness of CSE, running programmes in school to prevent CSE, and campaigning for changes in the law to make it easier for abusers to be brought to justice.

CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) –

  • CEOP have a website that allows people to report cases of online sexual abuse or online grooming and provides information and advice to children and young people, parents, carers and professionals through their Think U Know resource hub.

Internet Watch Foundation –

  • The organisation works internationally to make the internet safer by removing images of child sexual abuse. The organisation allows people to anonymously and confidentially report CSA content. It is the UK’s official hotline for reporting CSA content.

Loudmouth –

  • A midlands-based company which runs educational programmes, teaching children about CSE through drama performances and workshops across the country. They work with age groups from 8 to 15.

Maris Collins Foundation –

  • This organisation specifically focuses on children and young people who suffer sexual abuse and exploitation via internet and mobile technology.

NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Child Cruelty) –

  • Fighting to end abuse against children, including sexual abuse and exploitation. The charity helps families to prevent abuse from happening and works with children and young people and their families.

NWG (National Working Group) Network –

  • An organisation for both professionals, parents and carers. The National Working Group offers support and advice for those working with children and young people who are affected by or at risk of sexual exploitation.

Ofsted –

  • The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills is a government body who play a key part in ensuring CSE is tackled and that the work of teachers and Children’s Services is forward thinking in its approach to dealing with CSE.


  • The charity helps parents across the UK understand what is happening to their child and how parents are the prime agents in helping their child exit and recover from exploitative experiences.

Public Health England –

  • Public health teams have a vital part to play in the fight against child sexual exploitation. Local teams can identify those children at risk and get them to the help they need. Services within Public Health such as those for drugs, alcohol and sexual health, all have contact with children and young people who may be at an increased risk of sexual exploitation. By providing support and encouraging disclosure, these services can help those affected by exploitation at the earliest possibly opportunity.

Seen & Heard –

  • A partnership between The Department of Health and The Children’s Society, Seen & Heard offers e-learning and training for professionals to teach them how to help a child or a young person that discloses child sexual exploitation or abuse.

Stop It Now –

  • A campaign and helpline run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which provides information and educates members of the public and provides training to those who work with children and families.

The Children’s Society –

  • A charity which works with children and young people with multiple disadvantage. The Children’s Society has local services tackling the issue of CSE with children, young people and their families across England and Wales.

Victim Support –

  • A charity that helps people that are affected by crime or traumatic events to get the help and support they need.

CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection) –

  •  CELCIS work contributes to Scotland’s National Action Plan to Prevent and Tackle CSE and support the National CSE Group.

Youth Justice Board resources –

  • In 2016, the YJB launched these briefings on young people’s use of social media and how professionals can support them online.