Shocking new figures published last week evidenced the growing number of children suffering horrific exploitation – and just how few of the predators targeting them are being brought to justice.
Following the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, since 2016 more than 21,000 children have been referred for support as potential victims of exploitation for sexual abuse, to commit crime or through forced labour.
These young people were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the system for identifying victims of modern slavery and trafficking, which should be a gateway for support. They include those groomed and coerced for sexual abuse, into ‘county lines’ drug dealing and to commit other crimes including fraud, and to work at cannabis farms and nail bars.
Yet over the same period, just 185 prosecutions have been completed for modern slavery cases in which the victim was a child. Only half led to convictions.
The NRM figures also include referrals of children from abroad who have been trafficked and exploited – bringing into sharp focus concerns about children fleeing the horrors of the war in Ukraine. Young refugees fleeing war zones around the world, particularly those separated from family or who travel here via non-official routes, face these risks. Conflict creates chaos that perpetrators use to their advantage to target and exploit children.
These figures back up The Children’s Society’s research, analysis of data, and learning from Serious Case Reviews into cases of exploited children who came to harm or died.
The low number of prosecutions and convictions mean that many criminals who prey on children escape justice, free to target more young people, or are convicted for weapon or drug offences that do not reflect their predatory grooming and exploitation. They receive shorter prison sentences and on release are not on the radar of statutory services as individuals posing a risk to children. They do not have to comply with any restrictions limiting their contact with young people.
More needs to be done to understand why prosecution rates are so low.
Our research suggests that reasons could include the failure of the law to reflect the range of grooming techniques used by offenders, including offers of drugs, alcohol, cash and gifts, intimidation, and exploitation of vulnerabilities like learning difficulties.
We found an over-reliance on children understanding and disclosing their exploitation and a failure by agencies including police, social care, and the NHS to build and share evidence of grooming and intervene early.
Disruption tools available to the police do not apply consistently to all children. Child Abduction Warning Notices and the current online grooming offence do not apply to 16- and 17-year-olds, while Sexual Risk Orders and Modern Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders are time-consuming to implement and require a court application and significant evidence.
What then can be done to address this worrying situation?
Firstly, we would encourage ministers to introduce an offence of coercion and control of a child for exploitation, to help stop perpetrators in their tracks at the first signs of grooming.
New coercion and control notices and orders could be attached to this offence, allowing police, social services, and other agencies to act more quickly to protect children before grooming turns to abuse and exploitation.
In cases where grooming is not spotted early or acted upon, or where offenders issued with the new notices and orders have nevertheless gone on to exploit children, the new offence would help build evidence against them and improve prospects of a successful prosecution.
Secondly, there is still no statutory legal definition of child criminal exploitation, and we would urge the Government to put that right. A clear definition would assist professionals in spotting signs of exploitation earlier in the grooming process. It would also help ensure the Modern Slavery Act was used to its full potential in prosecuting offenders who exploit children to commit crime.
On top of this, the legal definition of child sexual exploitation still dates to when victims were unacceptably described as ‘child prostitutes’ – something The Children’s Society and others successfully campaigned to end. This kind of exploitation is still narrowly defined in criminal law and does not reflect the complex nature of grooming and coercion. This also needs to be addressed and the forthcoming Victims Bill offers the Government a golden opportunity to do so and to define child criminal exploitation for the first time.
Besides these new powers and legal definitions, professionals from all agencies, be it police, social care, schools, or the NHS, need to do more to build evidence of exploitation through engagement with children and families and to act early to stop grooming. We need to see better earlier support for children at risk and those exploited and a plan to end the current postcode lottery in help available.
These recommendations won’t be a silver bullet which alone closes the huge gap between the recognition of children as victims of exploitation and the prosecution of those exploiting them. We know there will also be broader issues to be addressed, such as resources and the need for a cultural shift in how we view children who are criminally exploited.
If put in place, however, they could be vital first steps in tackling the issue and protecting many more children.
Iryna Pona is policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society.