The back of a young person with their hood up beside a wall covered in graffitti

Exploited and Criminalised

Type Research

Published on
30 May 2023

This report outlines the growing problem of organised gangs exploiting and coercing children into criminality.

Exploited and Criminalised explains how the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill can be amended to make a real difference to children by creating a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation (CCE); and placing a requirement on local areas to specifically tackle CCE and serious youth violence.

This report was originally published in October 2021.

Every week we see newspaper headlines about children being victims of knife crime, often due to gang involvement and/or criminal exploitation. What we do not know is how many opportunities there have been to protect and safeguard that child from serious harm. Behind every news headline, there is a child who may have suffered untold trauma in their lives and whose vulnerability has been exploited by dangerous criminals. In 2019, the then Children’s Commissioner for England estimated that there were 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation*.

Despite the improvement in our mutual understanding of child criminal exploitation (also known as CCE), agencies are still seeing some exploited children as criminals. Children are continuing to be punished for the abuse they are receiving. It is crucial that when children come to the notice of law enforcement or any statutory agency, questions around the possibility of them having been exploited are asked.

People exploiting young people are more aware of vulnerabilities and able to target them.

Barnardo's practitioner

Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse. With the growing risk of grooming and abuse beginning online, and the continued threat from knife crime and "county lines" drugs trafficking, the dangers to children are complex and varied. It is critical that our laws, policies and practice are fit for the future. We need to strengthen the protection for children at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs, yet our evidence shows that some police forces do not even record it in a way that is easily accessible. The result is that it is very difficult to track trends such as the links to children in care.

The legal definition of child sexual exploitation introduced in 2016 provides a clear example of how a statutory definition can change attitudes and improve how different agencies understand and safeguard victims. The Government must take the opportunity of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to define child criminal exploitation as the first step in improving the response by agencies at all levels.

Furthermore, agencies must collaborate better. We welcome the introduction of a statutory duty on local areas to work together to prevent serious violence. But if it is to be truly effective it must specify in primary legislation that these duties include preventing and safeguarding children from CCE. Currently, they are being increasingly targeted by criminal gangs who are exposing children to the risk of arrest and violence while they profit. All new initiatives to reduce serious and violent crime and understand its causes must also seek to address the exploitation and abuse children are suffering. 

Our recommendations

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a unique opportunity to ensure that all professionals who support children understand child criminal exploitation (CCE) and work to better prevent, identify and support children who experience this growing harm. As it stands however, the Bill does not go far enough.

Using new findings, this report outlines the growing problem of organised gangs exploiting and coercing children into criminality and how the Bill can be amended to make a real difference to children by:

  1. creating a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation
  2. placing a requirement on local areas to specifically tackle CCE and serious youth violence

We are also calling on the Government to allocate specific funding for youth services, as part of a wider package of early intervention support in every community.

Report published: October 2021

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