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3.10.2 Sexual Exploitation


A summary of this chapter is available – see the Factsheets section in Local Resources.


Sheffield Child Sexual Exploitation Strategy

Sheffield Sexual Exploitation Service (Sheffield Futures website)

Sheffield Sexual Health Services


What to do if you Suspect a Child is being Abused - guidance to help practitioners identify the signs of child abuse and neglect and understand what action to take

Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017)

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue

Barnardo's - Child Sexual Exploitation - resources and research on Child Sexual Exploitation

Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: Progress Report - gives an update on action the government is taking to deal with child sexual exploitation

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation - College of Policing

Child Sexual Abuse - The Children's Commissioner

Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on Interviewing Victims and Witnesses and Using Special Measures (Ministry of Justice, March 2011)

Vulnerable and Intimidated Witnesses, A Police Service Guide (Ministry of Justice, March 2011)


Allegations against Persons who work with Children (including Staff, Carers and Volunteers) Procedure

Working with Sexually Active Young People Procedure

Gang Activity Procedure

Online Safety Procedure

Private Fostering Procedure

Honour-based Abuse Procedure


This chapter was updated in October 2019. Section 8, Boys and Young Men was updated to reflect local practice.

1. Introduction

The aim of this procedure is to provide guidance for practitioners who may encounter children and young people who are being sexually exploited. It is important that such practitioners understand the impact of sexual exploitation, are able to recognise the indicators of risk, know who to contact for advice and know how to make a referral to the appropriate services. It is also vital that practitioners recognise the importance of recording their concerns and passing this to the police/named contact within their organisation. Information about the circumstances and people involved will contribute to police intelligence, and at a later stage may also contribute to the successful prosecution of adults that sexually exploit children and young people.

Sheffield Safeguarding Partnership for Children and Young People promotes a multi-agency approach which emphasises the need to:

  • Recognise the problems of the sexual exploitation of children and young people;
  • Safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people;
  • Work together to provide children and young people with strategies to exit sexual exploitation;
  • Investigate and prosecute those who coerce, exploit and abuse children and young people in this way.

This document has been written in accordance with the Government guidance contained within Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation.

2. Definitions


Under the Children Act 1989, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 18. However, The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) uses the following terms to describe children of different ages:

  • Child (under 13 years);
  • Young person (13-17 years).

These terms will be adopted for the purposes of this guidance.

Sexual Exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. Working Together to Safeguard Children.

See also Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE 2017). This advice is non-statutory, and has been produced to help practitioners to identify child sexual exploitation and take appropriate action in response. This advice includes the management, disruption and prosecution of perpetrators.

Sexual exploitation is child abuse which can take a number of forms. Harper and Scott (2005) define it as the following:

  • Situations where children and young people are exploited by family members;
  • The involvement of children and young people in sexually exploitative relationships with older men or peers;
  • The informal exchange of sex for favours, money, drugs, accommodation or other commodities;
  • More 'formal' forms of sexual exploitation;
  • Organised abuse; and
  • Trafficking.

Sexual exploitation occurs in a social context of abuse towards women. However, it not just girls and young women who are sexually exploited; boys and young men may be victims too. Abusers and coercers - who are predominantly, but not always, men - often physically, sexually and emotionally abuse children and young people and in some situations, may effectively imprison them.

Children and young people make constrained choices against a background of social, economic and emotional vulnerability; it is not a 'free choice'. Because of either their age or their needs, they are unable to give truly informed consent to this activity.


There are two different types of trafficking of children and young people for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Firstly, there is trafficking from abroad into the United Kingdom (see Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure for further information). The second category is internal trafficking, where children and young people are moved from one place to another in the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation. This may be from one street to a neighbouring street, from one area of a town or city to another area, or across county borders. It is not the distance that is relevant in the definition of internal trafficking, but the movement of a child or young person for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

The National Referral Mechanism

Some victims who have been trafficked from abroad may be particularly vulnerable, and there are often barriers to them seeking help and reporting a crime. There is therefore an onus on front-line agencies to identify potential victims and help them access services. Front line practitioners should refer individuals who they think may have been trafficked to designated 'Competent Authorities' who will work with partners to make an assessment. These are based within the UK Visas and Immigration service.

Front line staff should refer possible victims of trafficking to the Competent Authority (see Local Contacts) (0114 252 3891). Where The UK Visas and Immigration service identify a potential victim the case will be assessed by designated specialist staff within a Competent Authority, which will also work with other relevant partners.

3. Principles

The principles underpinning Sheffield Safeguarding Partnership for Children and Young People's multi-agency response to the sexual exploitation of children and young people are as follows.

  • Sexual exploitation includes sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and, in some cases, neglect;
  • Children and young people do not make informed choices to enter or remain in sexual exploitation, but do so due to coercion, enticement, manipulation or desperation;
  • Young people under 16 cannot consent to sexual activity: sexual activity with children under the age of 13 is statutory rape - see Working with Sexually Active Young People Procedure;
  • Sexually exploited children and young people should be treated as victims of abuse, not as offenders;
  • Many sexually exploited young people have difficulty distinguishing between their own choices about sex and sexuality, and the sexual activities they are coerced into. This potential confusion should be handled with care and sensitivity by practitioners;
  • The primary law enforcement effort must be made against the coercers and adults who sexually exploit young people. In some cases young people themselves may exploit other young people, and in these cases law enforcement action may also be necessary.

Information Sharing Agreement for Child Sexual Exploitation

Effective information sharing underpins integrated working and is vital for early intervention and safeguarding. Each partner can hold different pieces of information which need to be placed together in order to enable a thorough assessment to be made.

The sharing of information must have due consideration with the law relating to confidentiality, data protection and human rights. Having a legitimate purpose for sharing information is an important part of meeting those legal requirements.

Six key documents provide the main national framework for information sharing:

  • Information Sharing: Advice for practitioners providing safeguarding services to children, young people, parents and carers;
  • Data Protection Act 2018 - This act provides the main legislative framework and information sharing issues and stipulates the conditions under which information may be shred i.e. the legal justifications;
  • Human Rights Act 1998 - This act incorporates article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which provides states that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life;
  • Caldicott Guidance - Caldicott Standards are applicable to Children's Social Care and Health. These standards have applied to NHS organisations for some time. They have more recently been extended into councils with social care responsibilities, in order to provide a framework for working within the Data Protection Act 2018 and to promote appropriate information sharing. See Implementing the Caldicott Standards into Social Care Department of Health 2002;
  • NHS Confidentiality Code of Practice - The code was issued in July 2003 and applies to all NHS organisations. It is a guide to the practice on confidentiality, security and disclosure of personal information;
  • Crime and Disorder Act 1998 - The Act is the primary legislative tool, common to all crime reduction protocols. It does not override existing legal safeguards on personal information.


This covers the sharing of personal information about victims, family and perpetrators of CSE, within and between the partner organisations listed. It will be implemented in line with the local and national guidance and principles set out in the overarching agreement/protocol.

Information may be shared under this agreement for the following purposes:

  • To facilitate best practice in order to provide a more integrated and coordinated approach to identified victims of Child Sexual Exploitation;
  • To inform multi_agency actions to prevent abuse occurring, disrupt perpetrator activity and secure evidence to support prosecutions, this may involve sharing intelligence gathered through the course of routine work, for example if a cohort of young people are found to have similar sexually transmitted infections or professional's involved are concerned about relationships in an area that could be potentially coercive;
  • To provide information, which may be anonymised if more appropriate, on areas or cohorts of concern;
  • Establish the potential involvement of partner agencies with identified victims/perpetrators;
  • Sharing information with partner agencies that may be providing services to the victim, their family or perpetrator of any actions taken;
  • Provide information to partners in other local authority areas so that links between potential abusers are recognised and actioned.

In adopting this partnership approach partners will work together to identify, support and safeguard children and young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation from those who are intent on abusing them.

4. How Children and Young People become involved in Sexual Exploitation

4.1 The Grooming Process

Children and young people who become involved in sexual exploitation are often subjected to being groomed. Older men, masquerading as their boyfriends, are usually the perpetrators of the grooming process. However, younger men and / or women or young women may also be involved. Such men have become skilled at drawing children and young people into sexual relationships. They are often well organised and use sophisticated methods. As well as targeting areas where children and young people go without much adult supervision, such as parks, shopping centres, school entrances, bus stations etc. they may use internet sites (see Specific Risks associated with Computers and Mobile Phones). The process of grooming may also be visible in some adult venues such as pubs and clubs.

Grooming involves older men being nice to the child or young person. When getting to know them, they show them a lot of interest and affection and make them feel special. They offer the child or young person drugs and / or alcohol, and a place to hang out away from parents / carers etc. They may buy presents like clothes, mobile phone, and give them money to buy things like cigarettes.

Once they have gained the child or young person's trust and affection they will change how they act around them. They will ask for sexual favours for themselves, and other men, in return for alcohol, drugs, presents, money etc.; all the things they previously gave them for free. They stop being nice and can become threatening and violent. Their aim is to draw children or young people into swapping or selling sex. They are not their friends and they do not care about them. The child or young person is purely a commodity.

4.2 Other Methods

As has been stated, children and young people can be groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some young people are engaged in informal economies that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty. Some young people have been bullied and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gangs which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant. They may also be coerced into criminal activities.

Sometimes perpetrators do not attempt to form a relationship with the child or young person. They may rape them or commit other sexual acts without using the grooming process. They may, or may not, previously be known to the child or young person. The offences may first involve the child or young person being abducted.

5. Indicators of Sexual Exploitation

Children and young people involved in any form of sexual exploitation face immense risks to their physical, emotional and psychological health. The environment in which sexual exploitation is located tends to have close links with criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse and violence. Children and young people drawn into this kind of sexual abuse therefore become exposed to these risks. There has been a higher incidence of murder associated with commercial sexual exploitation than is the case in the general population, and they are also more vulnerable to other violent acts such as rape, physical and sexual assaults and coercion into pornography.

The earlier that sexual exploitation, or a risk of sexual exploitation, can be identified, the more likely it is that harm to a child or young person can be minimised or prevented. Practitioners, therefore, should be aware of the indicators of sexual exploitation as detailed below. It should not be read as a definitive list and the indicators should not be taken, in themselves, as proof of involvement or predictive of future involvement. They are intended as a guide, which could be included in a wider assessment of the child or young person's needs and circumstances. In effective practice, the facts for each child or young person should be considered separately.

Anyone who has regular contact with children and young people is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs which may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation. However, parents, carers, teachers, doctors and youth workers are particularly well placed to do so. They should also be able to recognise where children and young people are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and may need targeted measures to prevent such abuse. The primary concern of anyone who comes into contact with a child or young person who is vulnerable to being sexually exploited must be to safeguard and promote their welfare.

An unsubstantiated allegation that a child or young person has established associations, or who may be on the periphery of sexual exploitation or sex work should be considered carefully. None of the following indicators, whether singly or in combination, should be viewed as conclusive proof of involvement in sexual exploitation, but a combination of them may be taken as suggestive of the possibility. The following indicators are for both girls / boys, and young women / men. They are divided into different domain areas.

Careful consideration should be given to whether relationships which are presented as consensual by children or young people actually are, or whether exploitation is taking place. Practitioners should be alert to the ways in which perpetrators can operate, especially where there is a large age-gap between the individuals involved. See Working with Sexually Active Young People Procedure for further information.

The indicators of involvement in sexual exploitation have been laid out below in domains, as specified in Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation. However, additional information has also been added in light of local practitioner knowledge.

5.1 Domain: Child or Young Person's Developmental Needs


  • Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault);
  • Evidence of misuse of drugs / alcohol, including associated health problems;
  • A sexually transmitted infection (STI), particularly if it is recurring or there are multiple STI's;
  • Pregnancy and / or seeking an abortion;
  • Sexually risky behaviour (including sexual activity with men not previously known to them, or with a number of different men; sexual activity in isolated places, where no one knows where they are);
  • Self-harming or eating disorders;
  • Mental health problems, including depression.


  • Truancy / disengagement with education, or considerable change in performance at school;
  • Being collected outside school by older / different males.

Emotional and Behavioural Development:

  • Becoming angry, hostile if any suspicions or concerns about their activities are expressed;
  • Volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or abusive language;
  • Aggressive or violent;
  • Getting involved in petty crime such as shoplifting or stealing;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • Young offender behaviour of anti-social behaviour;
  • Sexualised language;
  • Sexually offending behaviour;
  • Excessive use of reliance on mobile phones.


  • Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behaviour - cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity.

Family and Social Relationships:

  • Hostility in relationship with parents / carers and other family members;
  • Physical aggression towards parents, siblings, pets, teachers or peers;
  • Placement breakdown;
  • Reports that the child / young person has been seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation;
  • Detachment from age-appropriate activities;
  • Associating with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited;
  • Known to be sexually active;
  • Sexual relationship with an older person;
  • Involvement with young men known to associate with perpetrators of sexual exploitation;
  • Unexplained relationships with older adults;
  • Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults, via the Internet;
  • Phone call, texts or letters from unknown adults;
  • Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation;
  • Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for in spite of having no known home base;
  • Missing for long periods, with no known home base;
  • Going missing and being found in areas where the child or young person has no known links;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding.

Social Presentation:

  • Change in appearance;
  • Leaving home / care setting in clothing unusual for the individual child (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people);
  • Wearing an unusual amount of clothing (as planning to runaway);
  • Possession of excessive numbers of condoms.

5.2 Domain: Parenting Capacity

Ensuring Safety:

  • History of physical, sexual and / or emotional abuse or neglect;
  • Lack of parental concern about their whereabouts;
  • Parental denial about involvement in sexual exploitation or other associated issues;
  • Failure to protect;
  • Inconsistent parenting.

5.3 Domain: Family and Environmental Factors

Family History and Functioning:

  • History of physical, sexual and / or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence.


  • Pattern of street homeless;
  • Having keys to premises other than those known about.


  • Possession of money with no plausible explanation;
  • Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phone or other possession without plausible explanation;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding;
  • Always have credit on their mobile phones, despite having no access to money.

Family's Social Integration:

  • Reports that the child has been seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation;
  • Seen at public toilets known for cottaging (male sexual activity) or adult venues (pubs and clubs);
  • Adults loitering outside the child / young person's usual place of residence.

Other risks may involve involvement with gang members, drugs (use, possession, dealing or carrying), or other types of crime. Girls and young women are at risk of sexual exploitation from male gang members. For further information please see Gang Activity Procedure.

6. Specific Risks associated with Computers and Mobile Phones

See Online Safety Procedure.

At risk:

  • Spending increasing amount of time on social networking sites;
  • Accessing dating agencies via mobile phones;
  • Unexplained increased mobile phone / gaming credits;
  • New contacts with people outside of town;
  • Spending increasing amount of time with online friends and less time with friends from school or neighbourhood;
  • Increased time on web cam, especially if in bedroom;
  • Going online during the night;
  • Being secretive using mobile phone for accessing social media sites/apps etc. more than computers;
  • Unwilling to share / show online contacts;
  • Concerns that a young person's online friendship has developed into an offline relationship;
  • Concern that inappropriate images of a young person are being circulated via the internet / phones;
  • Continual phone calls / texts during the day and night;
  • Primary abuse via the Internet includes grooming etc;
  • Secondary abuse includes a child or young person being persuaded to have photos taken / to take them themselves and then posted online or circulated via other methods for example.


  • Arranging to meet people they have met on line;
  • Exchanging inappropriate images in exchange for aiming knowledge / phone and gaining credits;
  • Receiving gifts through the post from someone the young person does not know;
  • Concern that a young person is having an online relationship;
  • Concern that a young person is providing sexual images of themselves to others;
  • Sharing of inappropriate images amongst friends;
  • Being 'swapped' by adult men; having different sexual partners without much or any control.


  • Concerned that a young person is being bribed by someone for their inappropriate online activity;
  • Concern that a young person is selling images via the internet for money;
  • Concern that a young person is being drawn into providing increasingly provocative / sexualised images in exchange for payment;
  • Negotiating a prices for sexual activity / images;
  • Concern that a young person is selling sexual services via the Internet.

The forming of a close relationship with an older boyfriend, or female 'friend' who may in fact be or become a coercer; adults who exploit young people in this way are adept at the 'grooming' process and target those who are vulnerable. They may offer them the affection they crave and / or material gifts; they may introduce them to drugs / alcohol and inspire intense loyalty. Parents and social workers may find that convincing the young person to return home or to end the relationship is extremely difficult to achieve. The young person may not view themselves as a victim and may not be prepared to make any complaint to the police, for example if it is thought that unlawful sexual intercourse is taking place between the young person and the older male.

There are also family history factors which should be taken into consideration, and may increase the significance of other indicators. These are: history of physical, sexual, and / or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parental difficulties. Sexual identity may also be an issue for the child or young person.

The fact that a young person is 16 or 17 should not be taken as a sign that they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation. Young people of this age are still covered by statutory duties under the Children Acts 1989 and 2004, and they can still be subject to Significant Harm as a result of sexual exploitation. Their needs should not be ignored or de-prioritised by services.

7. Evidence Gathering and Recording and Sharing Information

If the child / young person is in a residential unit or foster care, staff / carers should be asked to take positive action to clarify and record their suspicions. Every effort should be made to try to minimise their involvement in sexual exploitation. Staff should ensure that all relevant information is recorded in their Care Plan and file. This may include the following:

  • Adults or other children and / or young people who are involved in the exploitation - names, street names, descriptions, addresses and other information;
  • Cars - colour, models, registration numbers;
  • Telephone calls - to and from whom, with numbers if possible;
  • Missing from care episodes.

Staff should not look through a child or young person's mobile phone for information. Parents are the only ones who are legally able to do this. If staff are in possession of a mobile phone of a child or young person who is involved in sexual exploitation that they believe has information stored on it that will be of use, the police should be informed. They can legally take the phone to examine it as part of an investigation into crimes that may have been committed.

Any practitioner in Sheffield who is concerned that a child or young person is involved in sexual exploitation should complete an Information Report (see Referrals for Young People (Sheffield Futures website))and send it to the Child Sexual Exploitation Police Officer, for South Yorkshire Police.

Photographs of injuries received as a result of abuse or other types of evidence should not be taken by practitioners other than those involved in an investigation such as a police officer or medical photographer as instructed by a paediatrician. Practitioners should always inform Children's Social Care or the police of the presence of such injuries or other factors that may be useful for evidential purposes. Parents can take photos, if they think it is appropriate.

The more detail that is able to be recorded, the more useful it will be. This information should be shared with the relevant agencies, but particularly with South Yorkshire police. Information is useful in relation to individual cases, but also in building up pictures of wider networks that may be in operation (seeSheffield Sexual Exploitation Service (Sheffield Futures website).

8. Boys and Young Men

Sexual exploitation is not just an issue for girls and young women, but also a reality for some boys and young men. But this is much more of a hidden problem for boys, due to stigma, prejudice and, sometimes, the assumption that boys involved in selling sex are more in control of their situation and, therefore, are less likely to be seen as victims.

Research suggests that much of this form of sexual exploitation happens behind closed doors, so it can be difficult to get a true picture of the extent of this problem: not only in Sheffield, but in the rest of the UK.

The commercial exploitation of boys is perhaps the most hidden form of child abuse in Britain and the one that is least known about (Nottinghamshire Police Authority, 2001).

8.1 Possible Routes into Sexual Exploitation

There are many ways that boys and young men may become involved in sexually exploitative relations with adults. Some of the possible routes into sexual exploitation are:

  • Abuse - Particularly sexual abuse, but physical abuse and neglect can be a major factor in a young person becoming involved in sexual exploitation, including prostitution. 'If I have to have sex with men I may as well get paid for it';
  • Survival - Selling sex to survive due to homelessness, threats of violence, etc;
  • Drugs - To support substance misuse. The direct exchange of sex for drugs or cash;
  • Homophobia - There are very few safe places for young men to explore their sexuality. Sexuality itself is not a risk indicator of child sexual exploitation, the lack of a safe space to explore can create risk;
  • Association - Contact with other young men who are being sexually exploited or living in residential care that is being 'targeted' by paedophiles;
  • Opportunistic - Simply being in the wrong place at wrong time. Being approached in public toilets, parks, amusement.

9. Taking Action if you are Concerned about a Child or Young Person

9.1 The Legal Age of Consent to Sex

The fact that a young person is aged 16 or 17 and, therefore has reached the legal age of being able to consent to sex should not be taken as a sign that they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation. They are still defined as children under the Children Act 1989 and 2004 respectively. They can still suffer Significant Harm as a result of sexual exploitation and their right to support and protection from harm should not be ignored or de-prioritised by services because they are over the age of 16, or are no longer in mainstream education or training. They may be additionally vulnerable if they are not living in stable accommodation.

9.2 Seeking Advice

Practitioners can seek advice from Sheffield Sexual Exploitation Service (0114 2018645).

The practitioner should make an enquiry to see if they or are known to Children's Social Care or if the adults involved are known, if appropriate.

9.3 Contacting Children's Social Care

A child or young person who is suffering, or is likely to suffer sexual exploitation will be a Child in Need. Therefore any practitioner who is concerned or receives information, that a child or young person is involved in sexual exploitation, should contact Children's Social Care to provide information about their concerns. For more information about making a referral, see Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure.

When a practitioner, parent, or another person contacts Children's Social Care with information about concerns that a child or young person is being sexually exploited, Children's Social Care should decide on its course of action within 24 hours. This will normally follow discussion with any referring practitioner, and should involve all other practitioners and services as necessary, including the police, where a criminal offence may have been committed against a child or young person.

As well as information about the child or young person, it is also important that anything known about the adults or other alleged perpetrators involved, such as names, nicknames, addresses, is included as part of the referral. This information should be passed to the police by Children's Social Care. It may be that they are already known to agencies as a Person who Poses a Risk (PPR) to children and young people, or that their details are recorded as someone of concern. See Persons, Volunteers / Carers Identified as Posing a Risk to Children Procedure.

The referrer should be informed of the decision taken and any proposed action by Children's Social Care within 72 hours. If no feedback is received, the referrer should contact them to follow up on the outcome.

Trix procedures

Only valid for 48hrs