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Identifying children and young people sexually exploited through street grooming

NSPCC factsheet

September 2013

This factsheet highlights what is known about the children and young people who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, signs that may indicate a child or young person is being sexually exploited and the difficulties in identifying victims.

This factsheet focuses on 'street grooming', it does not cover children and young people who are vulnerable to or have been sexually exploited online.

Children and young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation
Signs a child or young person is being sexually exploited
Levels of risk
Difficulties in identifying victims
What to do if you think a child or young person is being sexually exploited
Related content
Further help and information

Children and young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation

Research and practice shows certain groups of children and young people are at greater risk of being sexually exploited through street grooming.

Children and young people particularly at risk of sexual exploitation include:

  • missing or runaway or homeless children
  • looked after children
  • children with prior experience of sexual abuse, physical abuse or emotional abuse or neglect
  • adolescents or pre-adolescents
  • girls (current research suggests most victims are girls but boys are also at risk: boys are considered less likely to disclose which may make boys more vulnerable and may explain the gender imbalance in known cases)
  • children not in education through exclusion or truancy or children regularly absent from school
  • children socially excluded from services such as health services
  • children from black and minority ethnic communities
  • children from migrant communities
  • refugee children and unaccompanied asylum seeking children
  • trafficked children
  • children with mental health conditions
  • children who use drugs and alcohol
  • children with learning difficulties and disabilities
  • children involved with gangs, with links to a gang through relatives or friends, or living in communities or neighbourhoods where there are gangs
  • children with a history of delinquent or criminal behaviour
  • children from families or communities with offending behaviours
  • children from families where there is substance misuse, domestic violence or parental mental health issues
  • young carers
  • children living in poverty or deprivation
  • children who associate with young people who are sexually exploited
  • children lacking friends or lacking friends from the same age group
  • children with low self-esteem or low self-confidence
  • children who have experienced bereavement or loss
  • care leavers.

These signs have been drawn from a range of reseach (CEOP, 2011; Barnardo’s, 2012; Berelowitz et al, 2012; Cockbain, E. and Brayley, H., 2012) and from our experience working with sexually exploited children and young people through the NSPCC's Protect and Respect service.

For more information on looked after children, children with prior experience of sexual or physical abuse or neglect, trafficked children and children with learning difficulties and disabilities see our related topic pages.

For more information about what research tells us about victims of child sexual exploitation see our introduction page.

Signs a child or young person is being sexually exploited

The following list of indicators is not exhaustive or definitive but it does highlight common signs which can assist professionals in identifying children or young people who may be victims of sexual exploitation.

Signs include:

  • underage sexual activity
  • inappropriate sexual or sexualised behaviour
  • sexually risky behaviour, 'swapping' sex
  • repeat sexually transmitted infections
  • in girls, repeat pregnancy, abortions, miscarriage
  • receiving unexplained gifts or gifts from unknown sources
  • having multiple mobile phones and worrying about losing contact via mobile
  • having unaffordable new things (clothes, mobile) or expensive habits (alcohol, drugs)
  • changes in the way they dress
  • going to hotels or other unusual locations to meet friends
  • seen at known places of concern
  • moving around the country, appearing in new towns or cities, not knowing where they are
  • getting in/out of different cars driven by unknown adults
  • having older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • contact with known perpetrators
  • involved in abusive relationships, intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations
  • hanging out with groups of older people, or anti-social groups, or with other vulnerable peers
  • associating with other young people involved in sexual exploitation
  • recruiting other young people to exploitative situations
  • truancy, exclusion, disengagement with school, opting out of education altogether
  • unexplained changes in behaviour or personality (chaotic, aggressive, sexual)
  • mood swings, volatile behaviour, emotional distress
  • self-harming, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, overdosing, eating disorders
  • drug or alcohol misuse
  • getting involved in crime
  • police involvement, police records
  • involved in gangs, gang fights, gang membership
  • injuries from physical assault, physical restraint, sexual assault.

These signs have been drawn from a range of research (Barnardo’s, 2011; CEOP, 2011; Berelowitz et al, 2012) and from our experience working with sexually exploited children and young people through the NSPCC's Protect and Respect service.

It is not the case that a set number of signs mean definitively that a child or young person is a victim of sexual exploitation. The more signs, however, the greater the risk of sexual exploitation.

Risk levels

Risk assessment models to indicate when intervention, support and action are required for children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation often describe and categorise three levels of risk factor.

The example below is taken from the London Safeguarding Children Board's safeguarding procedures:

  • category 1 (at risk): a vulnerable child who is at risk of being targeted and groomed for sexual exploitation
  • category 2 (medium risk): a child who is targeted for opportunistic abuse through the exchange of sex for drugs, accommodation (overnight stays) and goods, etc. The likelihood of coercion and control is significant
  • category 3 (high risk): a child whose sexual exploitation is habitual, often self defined and were coercion / control is implicit (2006, p.6).

Indicators like the list above are usually grouped and mapped against risk categories. The risk assessment framework in the London Safeguarding Children Board's procedures groups indicators into:

  • education
  • running away / going missing
  • sexualised risk taking
  • rewards
  • contact with abusive adults and/or risky environments
  • coercion / control
  • sexual health
  • substance use
  • emotional health (2006, appendices 1 and 2).

See the risk matrix and diagrams in the appendix of the London Safeguarding Children Board's Safeguarding children abused through sexual exploitation (PDF) for the individual indicators mapped to each risk level.

Difficulties in identifying victims

It can be difficult to identify children and young people who have been or are being sexually exploited.

Children who have been sexually exploited by organised crime networks are often fearful for their safety even after being removed from the exploitative situation. These children may find it very challenging to form trusting relationships with adults in positions of power, for example with child protection professionals or teachers.

Young people may not see themselves as victims. They may believe their abuser is their boyfriend and loves them. They may be unwilling to say anything that could get their boyfriend in trouble or cause their boyfriend to become angry or break up with them.

In some situations, such as in gangs, there may be the belief that the abuse is normal and a rite of passage.

There may not be any peer support for the victim. The child's friends may all be in the same situation, under the control of an abuser or part of the network who is exploiting them. There may be nowhere for the child to go to escape their abusers.

They may be dependent on the things they receive such as money, drugs, alcohol, accommodation.

For young people who have a history of offending behaviour or are currently involved with the criminal justice system, there may also be a difficulty in recognising them as a victim and treating their experiences as a child protection issue.

What to do if you think a child or young person is being sexually exploited

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.

If you suspect or discover that a child or young person is being sexually exploited or that someone is sexually exploiting a child you can contact the NSPCC to discuss your concerns with one of our counsellors. Alternatively, you can contact your local police or children's services.

Confronting the alleged abuser may give them the opportunity to silence, confuse or threaten the child about speaking out about the abuse. It may also place the child in danger.


Barnardo’s (2011) Puppet on a string: the urgent need to cut children free from sexual exploitation (PDF). London: Barnardo’s.

Barnardo’s (2012) Cutting them free: how is the UK progressing in protecting its children from sexual exploitation (PDF). London: Barnardo’s.

Berelowitz, S. et al (2012) “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry in to child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups: interim report (PDF). London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2011) Out of mind, out of sight: breaking down the barriers to child sexual exploitation: executive summary (PDF). London: CEOP.

Cockbain, E. and Brayley, H. (2012) Briefing document: CSE and youth offending (PDF). London: UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science.

London Safeguarding Children Board (2006) Safeguarding children abused through sexual exploitation (PDF). London: London Safeguarding Children Board.

Related content

Listening and responding to children and young people who have experienced sexual exploitation and abuse
An NSPCC training course.

Sexual abuse homepage
Key statistics, official guidance, and learning from practice on child sexual abuse.

Trafficking homepage
Key statistics, official guidance, and learning from practice on child trafficking.

Further help and information

NWG Network
The National Working Group (NWG) Network links over 1000 practitioners who are working on the issues of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and trafficking in the UK. The network provides support, advice, updates on the latest CSE developments, research, policy and practice resources. It also organises awareness raising activities and influences the development of national and local policy as informed by practice. The network has developed 'Our Voice' a forum for young people affected by CSE to enable their voices to be heard.

What can I do? Protecting your child from sexual abuse
A NSPCC booklet giving simple information and advice about keeping children safe from sexual abuse.

Online advice on sexual abuse
Webpages for parents and the general public about sexual abuse covering what it is, the causes, effects, signs and what to do if you are worried about a child.

Contact the NSPCC's information service for more information on child sexual exploitation or any other child protection topic.

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