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Child abuse

Child exploitation information for professionals

Child Exploitation is a form of child abuse. It is not a specific criminal offence but the term encompasses a range of different forms of serious criminal conduct and a number of individual offences.

The Government produced this definition and guidance for Child Sexual Exploitation in February 2017.

Children and young people in Devon are at risk of and are victims of Child Exploitation (CE). It can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity or background and it happens in all parts of the country, not just urban areas such as large towns and cities, but in rural villages and coastal areas too, just like Devon.

Those being abused may not recognise what is happening because their abuser makes them think they are in a relationship and are special. CE can also happen as a result of violence, threats or intimidation. Therefore it is important that professionals don’t rely on the child or young person disclosing their abuse in order to identify that CE is taking place.

Further information for professionals, including risks, indicators and actions to be taken are available in the Devon Safeguarding Children Partnership Procedures Manual.

Do you know a child at risk of exploitation in Devon?

If you suspect a child is in immediate danger you should call the Police on 999.

If you have significant safeguarding concerns about child, please discuss them with your designated Safeguarding Lead and contact the MASH on 0345 1551071.

Concerns about a child or young person at risk of exploitation, people who may exploit children and related locations of concern should be submitted to the MACE.

Missing and Child Exploitation Meeting (MACE)

The MACE is a multi-agency professional meeting. It is aimed at preventing children and young people from being exploited by working together to gather, share and understand information and intelligence in order to identify potential risks and for agencies to use their resources to protect the child or young person.  Child exploitation requires a multi-agency response and the MACE is supported by a diverse membership.

They also discuss adults and young people who may be at risk of committing child exploitation and related locations of concern that might be being used for the grooming or exploitation of children, for example a private dwelling, car park, park or hotel.

We have guidance available for practitioners on the MACE.

When to make a MACE submission

If you have any form of exploitation concern about a child or young person that does not meet the Child Protection threshold complete Section 1 of the ‘Safer Me Assessment’ and send it to the MACE email box to identify if any other agency has information relevant to the case.

When a child or young person is open to Children’s Social Work the exploitation risks need to be managed through their multi-agency plan so professionals should liaise with the child’s social worker about their concerns. They do not need to be brought to MACE unless they are seeking to share or gather additional information on networks, locations or persons of concern.

You should also make a MACE submission if you have a concern that someone may be involved in the grooming or exploitation of children or young people or you suspect that a location is being used for the grooming or  exploitation of children. Complete either Section 3 of the ‘Safer Me Assessment’ if your concern relates to a location, or Section 4 if your concern relates to a person of concern.

Normal Child Protection procedures apply and should not be delayed or stopped due to the MACE process.

How to make a MACE submission

You can make a MACE submission by completing the ‘Safer Me Assessment’ and sending it to the MACE email box.

This tool helps all professionals working with children identify those at risk of exploitation. It provides a guide for what to look for and what actions should be taken depending on the risk identified.

If your concern relates to a child and you are submitting Section 1 of the ‘Safer Me Assessment’ where there are also concerns about a suspected person of concern or location being used for the grooming or exploitation of children, Section 3 and/or Section 4 should also be completed dependent on the context of your concern.

The professional who has reported a exploitation concern in relation to a child at risk is expected to attend the MACE meeting. If they are unable to attend, they are expected to send a representative. Only in extenuating circumstances will a child be discussed without anyone representing them.

If you need help completing the assessment and knowing what action to take, you can call the MASH on 0345 155 1071 and request advice from the REACH team (Reducing Exploitation and Absence from Care and Home). Your call will be taken by a Customer Services Advisor who will forward your details and enquiry to the REACH team so that they can respond.

How can children be exploited?

Children can be exploited in many different ways, to help you understand and recognise what might be going on here are a few models that you should be aware of:

Inappropriate relationship
The young person is in a relationship with an older partner who exerts a great deal of influence and control over them due to an imbalance of power. The young person is likely to believe they are in a serious adult relationship and not recognise its exploitative nature.

Peer exploitation
The young person is in a relationship with another young person who is coercing them into some form of sexual or criminal activity with their friends. Based on national and local analysis, the majority of child sexual exploitation in Devon is perpetrated by the peer groups of the victims and over half of those that sexually exploit children are under 18 themselves.

Organised exploitation
The young people (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced /coerced into criminal or sexual activity with multiple people. They can be sent to other locations to sell drugs or coerced into ‘sex parties. Young people who are involved may be used as agents to recruit others into the network.

Online Exploitation
Any of the above models may involve online exploitation where the young person shares sexual images or videos or is coerced into carrying out criminal or sexual acts via web-cam. According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre most child sexual exploitation offences take place online. Analysis by the centre reveals that 13 and 14 year olds represent the largest single victim group of online exploitation.

Exploitation is not restricted to one ethnic group. Abusers and victims are known to come from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Boys and young men can also be victims of sexual exploitation, however they may be less likely to disclose offences or seek support, often due to stigma, prejudice or embarrassment or the fear that they will not be believed. Girls and young women can be used to sell drugs or be economically exploited.

Women can be abusers too. They may use different grooming methods but are known to target both boys and girls.

Violence, coercion and intimidation are common in child exploitation cases as many abusers target vulnerable young people. Their vulnerability is often due to economic or physical circumstances that leave them with few choices, however, it is important to remember any child may be targeted so it is important to help them keep safe.

Warning signs

All forms of exploitation can be difficult to spot and children may be the victims of multiple forms of exploitation. It is not always easy to spot as the warning signs can often be confused with other difficulties young people can experience. These are some of the main indicators of exploitation (although it is not an exhaustive list):

  • Going missing or absent for periods of time, or regularly returning home late without reasonable explanation.
  • Regularly missing school.
  • Being secretive about where they are and who they are with.
  • Secretive use of the internet.
  • Being in contact with older people online that are not part of their usual peer network.
  • Having unexplained new possessions, for example, a mobile phone.
  • Having older boyfriends or girlfriends.
  • Isolation from peer group, family and friends.
  • Drug and alcohol misuse.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, including how they dress.
  • Mood swings or changes in behaviour.
  • Changes in physical appearance such as weight loss or appearing tired all the time.
  • Having unexplained injuries.
  • Frequent sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies.

Useful resources and training

The Safer Devon Partnership Exploitation Toolkit provides information to help professionals and volunteers understand, identify and report signs of exploitation.

PACE (Parents against Child Sexual Abuse) have created a free online learning module about the signs and symptoms as well as the impact of CSE. It also gives advice on what to do when you think a child might be at risk of CSE.

The Centre of expertise on child abuse have produced information on how we can better understand children’s disclosures of abuse.

If you are worried about the safety or wellbeing of a child or young person in Devon,
please complete the request for support online form.


If you think that the child is at risk of significant harm,
contact our Front Door directly by calling 0345 155 1071.


In an emergency call 999.