Recruitment, control, exploitation: Spotting the signs of child exploitation

Written by: Dawn Jotham | Published:
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Recruitment, control, exploitation – the three key stages of child exploitation must be understood by school staff. Dawn Jotham offers her advice to help us identify students at risk, including spotting the various signs

Child exploitation has been a growing concern over recent years. Although by no means a new risk, increasing reports of abuse and exploitation – such as the county lines phenomenon – have brought the issue to the forefront of safeguarding.

But such a sensitive topic needs careful – and swift – handling, and so we need to first ensure that teachers and schools have the knowledge, skills and policies in place necessary to effectively support their students.

It is important to recognise that there are several different forms of child exploitation. While sexual exploitation is often in the headlines, the term child exploitation essentially refers to a form of child abuse that involves a child or young person being used for the gain of someone else.

It can involve manipulative or abusive behaviour and normally occurs due to an imbalance of power between factors such as age, gender, cognitive ability or access to necessary resources.

In this connected age, we are all well aware that it can occur both on and offline, by a group or individual, and it affects both males and females, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that boys are less likely to report exploitation than girls (Children’s Society, 2018).

Recruitment, control and exploitation

Recruitment can take various forms but can be described as a grooming process. Generally, the victim is identified due to their vulnerability, and it is crucial to remember that anyone from any background can be affected.

It is true to say that those in care, young carers, children not in full-time education, and young people with learning disabilities are all higher risk groups, as are those who misuse drugs or alcohol and who are excluded from mainstream education (Bolton Council, 2020).

But is important to look beyond these factors; there have been cases of private school pupils being recruited by drug gangs for running drugs and money laundering, precisely because they are less likely to be suspected, and also because they may have the means to conceal money.

External factors can also increase a young person’s vulnerability to exploitation. These can include a disrupted or chaotic family life, conflict within the family unit, a history of abuse and neglect, poor mental health (or poor parental mental health), and homelessness.

Meanwhile, certain transition points can also play a role in increasing vulnerability. One important example here for secondary schools is moving from childhood to adolescence. A teenager may feel complimented by the attentions of an older adult and not realise they are being groomed.

Once a young person has been recruited, the perpetrator establishes control over the victim, isolating them from their support groups; for example, their peers, family and school. The perpetrator takes total control of the young person, making them wholly reliant on them, and manipulating the young person into feeling guilty if they do not do as they are asked.

Alcohol, controlled drugs and tobacco may be introduced to the young person, making them more dependent on the perpetrator to “feed” an addiction. This leads on to full exploitation and, as this increases, the physical and emotional condition of the young person will deteriorate due to the chaotic and dangerous nature of their lifestyle.

Recognising the signs – the first step in helping young people

Empowering schools and teachers to help tackle this issue is crucial and having the knowledge and skills to recognise exploitation is an important first step. Understandably, signs can vary with each individual but identifying changes in overall behaviour will help to recognise a child that is being exploited.

Common markers include disengagement from school and family members, self-harm, possession of drugs or alcohol, spending more time online, and withdrawn and anxious behaviour.

New mobile phones or unexplained gifts can be signs of sexual exploitation, while indicators of gang-related exploitation can include seemingly mundane signs such as a newly distinctive dress style and new friends of different ages, to more sinister ones such as carrying a weapon and being approached or picked up by unknown vehicles.

That it is so difficult for young people to make a disclosure at a time when they most need their school’s help should further reinforce the fact that cases of exploitation are not the responsibility of the young person. They are the victims of manipulation and the barriers to them seeking help are numerous (SecEd, 2020).

The barriers are also important for teachers to be aware of, as handling them requires no small degree of sensitivity. One of the biggest barriers, aside from the control exerted by the perpetrator, is young people not seeing themselves as a victim (or not wanting to be seen as one). Fear of being blamed, criminalised or labelled are also usually factors. Facing ridicule, cultural stigma and a general mistrust of the police or other professional services can also be influences.

In the cases of children with disabilities, they may have a poor understanding of the issue and may not even be aware that they are being exploited.

If we look at the issue contextually, then we also have to consider the perception of acceptable behaviour that the young person may have, which can be influenced by their friendship groups, community, family, and of course the media.

As already mentioned, research has also shown that boys are less likely to report that they are being exploited than girls.

For schools, being aware of all of these factors is vital. The steps needed to tackle child exploitation require sensitivity and quick action – which is not always easy to achieve in tandem.

Underpinning every effective safeguarding policy is the need to recognise that victims should not bear responsibility, and the Reframe the Blame campaign aims to encourage transformation of the narrative of blame around child exploitation.

Exploitation of any kind will have a significant impact on a young person’s mental and physical health, both short and long-term, and any response must understand this.

If you think a child or young person is in immediate danger, contact the police at once. Safeguarding children and young people should always be your main priority.

If you think a child or young person is at risk of exploitation and serious youth violence or you believe that they are being exploited, you should follow your school’s safeguarding policy or contact children’s social care.

  • Dawn Jotham is pastoral care specialist at EduCare.

Further information & resources

  • Bolton Council: Children and Young People at Risk of Sexual Exploitation (Section 5: Vulnerability and Risk Factors), Accessed May 2020:
  • Children’s Society: Boys and Young Men at Risk of Sexual Exploitation: A toolkit for professionals, March 2018:
  • EduCare: The Reframe the Blame initiative looks to change the narrative of blame around child exploitation. It includes a free online course on Serious Youth Violence, written in partnership with The Children’s Society. Visit
  • SecEd: County lines: A world of violence, intimidation and crime, Darren Martindale, March 2020:


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