Child Criminal Exploitation – the time to act is now

With the publication of the first ever report to address Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in Scotland, child criminal exploitation is on the agenda right now – but is enough being done? Fiona Dyer doesn’t think so, and is calling for Scotland to take action now to prevent further exploitation from happening. 

The Home Office defines CCE as:

“….(where) an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual”

This definition highlights what these children are – and that is a victim. Its use of language also demonstrates just how difficult it can be to identify the children who are being “coerced, controlled and manipulated”, and of course, this behaviour can occur online.

Over the past few years the issue of child criminal exploitation (CCE) has been a growing concern for many practitioners in Scotland. Some have identified where they think children are being criminally exploited while others have vented frustrations at the struggle to identify these children. Failing to identify children as being exploited by the adults around them means we potentially then inappropriately hold these children criminally responsible.

We also know from research by The Children’s Society that children who are in the care ‘system’, children who have learning difficulties, children who are not in mainstream education and children living in poverty are more likely to be criminally exploited. The issue is a growing concern since COVID and lockdown in March 2020, which has made certain children even more vulnerable to exploitation, for instance, increasing difficulties around accessing money and isolation from others.

Reading the excellent report by SCRA and Barnado’s Scotland on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) made me think further about CCE and our general lack of knowledge and focus in Scotland. This national report was the first in Scotland to address CSE, and the accompanying policy paper highlights 15 recommendations that need to be undertaken to address the issue of CSE. I believe all 15 recommendation made are also applicable to CCE with additional ones to include the Crown Office and Courts, where many victims of CCE will end up.

Although CCE has been on ‘the’ agenda for the past few years, it’s not been on everyone’s agenda in Scotland. There are some excellent services in local authorities and some great people raising awareness of it, but there is no coordinated strategy to prevent children from being criminally exploited.

As a result of our lack of knowledge, policy direction and practice support in Scotland, children are at a greater risk of being criminally exploited, this behaviour being attributed to them and having their future tarnished by blame. Not only are these children at risk of criminal charges, Children’s Hearings or Court appearances and the negative impact this can have on their future, they are also being placed in significant danger by the actions of others.

In England, lots of work has been done by the Home Office and police to raise awareness and support professionals to identify and protect these children. Guidance and a toolkit has been produced, which are helpful resources, but don’t necessarily ‘fit’ within Scotland and our unique policy and legislation for children.  So where does that leave us?

In Scotland, this is a gap. Practitioners are telling us that they don’t know what do to, that they are not being listened to by other professionals when they are identifying a child who is being criminally exploited and there is no guidance or support for them to turn to. They also don’t know what to do to prevent children being abused in this way in the first place. Although practitioners are using their skills, professional judgement and working with these children as best they can, there is no consistent evidence based approach in Scotland.

Last year we held a conference to look at the issue of CCE. Agencies came together with a shared agenda and there was momentum for a way forward. Although there has been a dedicated working group meeting regularly since this event, the alarm being raised across Scotland highlights that we need to do more than this. We need a nationally agreed strategy and consistent policy direction, an awareness raising and training programme, on-going practice support and better evidence. Without prioritising the resources and supports to prevent CCE as urgent, more and more children will continue to be criminally exploited on a daily basis.

We need to stop this. We need to act together and we need to act now.

About our blogger

Fiona Dyer is Deputy Director of CYCJ. Read more.

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