Child Sexual Exploitation – a child psychologist’s account

SNJ note: Today we welcome back SNJ columnist Charlie Mead, a child psychologist who works with vulnerable young people in the Midlands & South West of England. Today he talks about the increase in cases and prosecutions of child sexual exploitation.


Sexual exploitation of children and young people usually involves situations where young people receive ‘rewards’ as a result of them performing sexual acts. These rewards can include basic needs such as food or accommodation but is also likely to be linked to drugs, alcohol, presents or cash. The grooming process is also likely to include declarations of affection and attention that the child may not have experienced before. Child sexual exploitation grooming can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition; for example being persuaded to post sexual images on the Internet without immediate payment or gain. However, many children are specifically targeted online or on the street due to their circumstances and vulnerability, especially children in care.

In all cases, those exploiting the child have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and economic or other means. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social, economic and emotional vulnerability. This level of child exploitation is planned, deliberate and ignores the rights of the child in favour of personal gratification whoever the abuser may be.

The last few years have seen an increase in the number of prosecutions, investigations and case reviews of children who have been sexually exploited. High profile cases in Rochdale, Torbay, Oxford, Peterborough and Rotherham as well as the recent news that 500 children are known to have been exploited in Birmingham in the first six months of 2014, have begun to impact on the public conscience. This week (March 18th) saw the first National Awareness Day for Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE); the National Working Group (NWG) on CSE has held its second national conference; Steven Rimmer’s report on CSE in Birmingham has made national headlines.

Image from NWG Network Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation website. Image links to their website


CSE has been with us in this country throughout my lifetime. Children have been systematically abused by both church and state, in schools and children’s homes for decades. The difference with the situation today is that the numbers have finally grown to the point where state organisations, including the police, have finally had to own up to neglecting the needs of children who have come to them with evidence of abuse. We are now seeing apologies from various police services across the country with investigations ongoing in many others.

The recognition that CSE is likely to appear in any community in the country is allowing parents, professionals and the young people themselves to address the issue and identify specific groups and individuals as specific targets for exploitation. In the work that I do these groups include children in care and those with learning difficulties. In Birmingham for example it is estimated that 1 in 3 of all children identified as having been exploited are from children’s homes or in foster care. This figure is higher in some areas though all statistics around CSE need to be treated with caution. A higher level of CSE amongst European and African nationals who are trafficked can be expected for example, as they are unlikely to ever be known to agencies that collect data.

As the growing awareness of CSE in this country increases so does the need to respond to the causes and effects on children. Organisations such as Barnardo’s and NSPCC have a history of working with individual cases and raising awareness of the issues but it needs a national response across agencies to tackle the problem at source. Whilst there are still ongoing investigations into political and judicial involvement in child abuse, both historically and presently, it is difficult to have much confidence in the system of government in tackling CSE comprehensively and providing the resources needed to mend the lives broken by this level of neglect.

Resources that were originally intended to fund security or mental health issues are being diverted to meet the needs of CSE victims and prosecute perpetrators. CAMHS services, already underfunded, are being stretched further by the demand for interventions with exploited children. Police and courts are allocating unplanned time and resources to CSE in all its forms.

There has been an increase in the number of children who have been exploited being placed in secure accommodation across the country partly to keep them safe but also because there is little alternative provision for the scale of the problem. Government departments, especially the Home Office and Foreign Office , need to secure increased funding from the treasury to address CSE that avoids other areas of child safety and development being adversely affected. Local Authorities need to further prioritise their own measures to help keep children safe, especially the children who are in their care.

Historical sexual abuse and exploitation by local and national politicians in state funded children’s homes is now well documented. These children are already vulnerable and continue to be exploited by individuals or groups who continue the institutionalised abuse of times past. Gangs identify children in care and target them as potential victims. The dangers of these children continuing to be abused when they are placed in homes by the courts are present, but with the right support many of these children can recover from their experiences and develop a much clearer understanding of how to gain control over their lives and make appropriate choices.

Most children who have experienced CSE do not see themselves as having been exploited or even abused. They have been groomed to the point where they think they have made their own choices and responsible adults who stop them absconding from a children’s home with older men, getting drunk, taking drugs and being sexually shared are depriving them of their liberty. The starting point for any programme of change with CSE is to enable the child to see that they were taken advantage of even if they were willing victims, and that what happened to them is not part of a normal childhood.

In my work as a psychologist I see children who have experienced CSE referred on an increasingly regular basis. The response we have made is to open a home dedicated to this group in order to focus resources on their needs. These children will mainly come from secure units across the country and will share many of the issues characterised by a CSE child. Lack of attachment, poor social skills, and low self-esteem lead to difficulties making appropriate choices around consent and life style. They are given time to recover from their abuse and receive help from trained and dedicated staff that, along with the therapy team are able to identify their needs.

This will involve a period of assessment and social integration and will usually lead to family work, individual therapy where needed and group work where children can learn from each other. Hopefully this all leads to a better outcome for the girls including improved resilience; an understanding of consent and risk; normalisation of thoughts and actions; and the ability to keep themselves safe by acting on advice given by those supporting them.

As a therapist this is the most significant stage of a girl’s stay at the home. It is through this process of change that the girl will develop the understanding and skills needed to participate appropriately as an ordinary member of society, to live safely and not be vulnerable and powerless when confronted with difficult or challenging situations or circumstances.

How parents can protect their children from exploitation

So what can parents do to protect their children from all sorts of exploitation, but specifically CSE ? What we know is that most forms of exploitation take place in a virtual world where a child may be physically present at home but open to abuse by predatory adults.

If parents do not monitor their children’s on-line activity they cannot be sure that they are not open to abuse. This is especially true of vulnerable children – whether they be in foster placements or have a learning difficulty that already makes it difficult for them to make appropriate choices.

"If parents do not monitor their children’s online activity they cannot be sure that they are not open to abuse. These is especially true of vulnerable children – whether they be in foster placements or have a learning difficulty that already makes it difficult for them to make appropriate choices."

If parents can recognise the common issues and reasons for vulnerability then they can be more certain in their assumptions about their children. If their child has low self-esteem or a poor self-image they are more likely to respond to the overtures of a potential abuser.

Young people who run away from home are also recognised as being more at risk of being targeted as a victim of sexual exploitation. It is therefore essential that parents recognise these factors and work hard to ensure their child is safe if they have been away from home for any period of time.

Vulnerabilities are identified and targeted by the abuser, whether the young person is living with their family, looked after, away from home or they have run away. Figures show that the majority of CSE victims are actually living with their families. So parents should not assume that their children are safe – they should check to make sure.

However, it is often the case that children and young people do not see themselves to be victims, as they consider they have acted voluntarily. They resent being asked about their life style choices and resist any attempt to remove them from the exploitative relationship. The reality is that their behaviour is not voluntary or consenting and resistance to parental enquiry can be a signal of concern in itself.

CSE is a growing concern but it is also one that is being addressed by a growing number of agencies, organisations and individuals. More is being learnt so that children can be better protected, but far more needs to be done, by government both national and local, for those that are the most vulnerable in our society, those that do not have a voice and have not been heard in the past. The hope is that they will be listened to in the future.

Charlie Mead

March 2015

Charlie Mead

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