Child sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation

About the issue

Care experienced children and young adults are likely to have the kinds of vulnerabilities that make them a target for criminals who wish to criminally and/or sexually exploit them, such as backgrounds of trauma and abuse and lack of adult care and oversight. Young, care experienced adults, living on their own with limited support are extremely vulnerable to criminals, who may try to use their properties for criminal activities, a process known as “cuckooing”.

Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) may involve County Lines activity although this is not the only form of criminal exploitation. There can also be a cross-over between CCE and Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), for example, children may be forced to hide drugs internally or be coerced into carrying out sexual activities and offences that are filmed as part of a control process. Both boys and girls can be victims of both CCE and CSE, so both should always be considered. Recent research (2021) conducted by CASCADE and funded by Health Care Research Wales examined how children are targeted, groomed, and criminally exploited in Wales.

It can be very worrying, even frightening, to suspect that a child or young adult is the victim of CCE or CSE. There are now many sources of support for practitioners who have concerns and you should never be dealing with these worries alone. However, it is essential that everyone working with care experienced children and young adults is equipped with some basic knowledge in order to prevent criminalisation and to initiate safeguarding responses where necessary. Use the resources on this page to:

  1. Understand: definitions of CCE and CSE; characteristics that make children and young adults vulnerable to exploitation; the grooming process.
  2. Spot the signs that might suggest a child or young adult is being groomed or exploited.
  3. Know where to go to for help and advice if you have concerns.
  4. If a child or young adult is arrested: raise any concerns about CCE or CSE; know there are possible defences for criminal activities committed through exploitation under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and have an awareness of the National Referral Mechanism and the Independent Child Trafficking Guardians service; consult a specialist lawyer, either a youth justice lawyer or someone with expertise in modern slavery; put safeguarding support in place and encourage trauma-informed practices; ensure potential victims of exploitation are treated as victims not criminals.


There is lots of information available to help practitioners understand these forms of abuse and to learn how to spot the signs that a child or young adult might be the victim of exploitation. The Home Office and Ministry of Justice have published a range of resources for practitioners, including:

Where to go for advice and practical help

The following organisations provide advice and practical support for practitioners, young people and their carers.