Child criminal exploitation: Beware of the darkness

Written by: James Simoniti | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Safeguarding expert and former police detective James Simoniti advises how schools can spot the signs of – and respond effectively to – the scourge of child criminal exploitation

Nurturing and supporting children and young people is the focus of our working lives as education professionals and a big part of these efforts is ensuring that our schools are places of safety.

Sadly, for some children in our society that security does not extend beyond the school gate, and they run a very real risk of being lured and exploited by criminal forces that lurk within their communities.

Child criminal exploitation (CCE) is a central worry for safeguarding leads in our secondary schools. Today, as schools continue to deal with the aftermath of pandemic lockdowns that forced many young people out of the safety and security of the physical school environment, it is an even greater concern.

Before I set out what schools can do to identify and tackle child criminal exploitation it makes sense to quickly define it.

The NSPCC provides a very simple definition of CCE: it is when a child is manipulated and coerced into committing crime – for example when children are exploited by others to move drugs such as heroin and cocaine from large urban areas to smaller towns, a criminal “business model” commonly referred to as “county lines”.

Children are used in this crime network because they can be paid next to nothing and will “work” for extremely lengthy periods of time. They are disposable – the exploiters fully expect to replace the child, whether they escape, go to prison, or even get killed – and they are easy to recruit and hook in ways that adults are not.

Children are groomed over a period of time by someone they trust, who will suddenly turn on them. Snapchat is a common way of recruiting young people. Exploiters will broadcast images of large amounts of cash, asking if anyone wants to earn significant money that night, cash in hand.

Once lured in, the child or young person will soon become locked into the exploitative relationship. Scared of repercussions from the exploiter, they often keep quiet about their predicament, believing they are more likely to suffer harm by telling someone.

Spotting the signs of CCE

Schools need to be attuned to the signs of CCE. These can include the following:

Going missing or other school attendance issues: Most CCE victims have an extensive history of missing episodes, which means being reported as missing to the police by their parents or carers. These missing episodes are usually the times in which the child is being forced to run the drugs between locations. These missing episodes may sometimes be reflected in low attendance at school, especially if the child is being forced to move drugs to distant locations. If you hear a child has been reported missing, remember that they may have experienced significant trauma during this period. Ensure they are well supported on their return to school.

Gifts and money: Children being exploited are likely to be given gifts, especially in the early stages of grooming. This is one of the ways in which they are tied into the exploitative relationship. As such, look out for amounts of money. Children that have begun to be exploited into running drugs are likely to have some money and may well bring it into school to show off to their peers. Also listen out for conversations about pupils bringing in significant amounts of cash. PE teachers can play an important role here. Is a child frequently wearing new trainers? Are they wearing expensive jewellery or watches? Look out for these signs in lessons.

Unusual phone usage: An exploiter is likely to control the child using their phone. They may even provide the child with a new phone solely for this purpose. Indeed, CCE victims may possess multiple phones – usually, at least one of these is a “burner” phone. They may also use multiple SIM cards and physically swap these between phones.

Changing of peer groups: A sudden change of friendship groups could be a cause of concern. Alarm bells should also ring if you hear that a child is associating with older people outside of school. Be ready to ask why the student has changed their friendship group.

Getting defensive: The student may be defensive when asked about exploitation. Most will deny that it is happening, or when they do give hints about what is going on they will imply that it is something completely consensual or even a form of employment. In more extreme examples, they may have been attacked and injured but are still unwilling to work with the police or support a police investigation.

Tiredness: Children may be up for more than 20 hours at a time being forced to run drugs. You may notice them falling asleep in class, or really struggling to concentrate.

Tackling CCE and supporting pupils

Schools can tackle CCE and support their pupils through a range of approaches:

Review PSHE and RSHE curriculum: Make this relevant to children and talk about the importance of keeping themselves safe. Pupils arriving at secondary school should have already been taught via statutory relationships education about appropriate boundaries in friendships with peers and others, including those in a digital context.
By the end of secondary school the statutory relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE) curriculum should cover types of behaviour within relationships that are criminal, including violent behaviour and coercive control.

Staff training: CCE is mentioned in Part One and Annex B of Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021). Staff should have clear understanding of what CCE is, what the signs are, and how to refer any concerns to the safeguarding team.

Clear attendance monitoring: How are staff encouraged to share any concerns? How are attendance teams supported to share their concerns with the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), to ensure that effective information is shared?

Make referrals to appropriate agencies: Your starting point will be children’s social care and perhaps your Safer Schools Officer, but there will be other support mechanisms in place in your local area. Speak to other DSLs and find out what other agencies operate in your local area.

Avoid exclusion: Consider alternatives to fixed term exclusion where possible when there are concerns about CCE. For example, use alternative provision or organise an internal exclusion where possible to minimise the time where children are at home and potentially more vulnerable to their exploiters. 

Further information & resources


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