Every year, thousands of children in the UK are exploited. Some have been groomed into county lines drug trafficking, others face sexual abuse and grooming in their own communities.
No matter the form of child exploitation, the language we use to talk about young people can often decide if they are kept safe or put more at risk.
Criminals may be more likely to groom children who live in poverty, face exclusion from mainstream school, or are in care.
Whether it’s through sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or criminal exploitation and county lines, children shouldn’t be blamed for the abuse they experience. They are not the problem.
You may hear children referred to as ‘money mules’ or ‘gift girls’. But they are not animals or objects. This language dehumanises the young person and ignores the abuse. It needs to be challenged.
When a child is exploited, their choices are taken away. Their entire future is in the balance. It affects families too.
3 Stages of Child Exploitation
This can take various forms but can be described as a grooming process.
This is an essential element in the process as it establishes the dominance of the perpetrator over the victim.
Alcohol, controlled drugs and tobacco may be introduced to the young person making them more dependent on the perpetrator to ‘feed’ an addiction.
In this phase the young person is exploited and may be made available to other people for exploitation.
Controls are exerted with extreme pressure to ensure compliance.
Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked.
Anybody can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time – from weeks to years. Groomers may also build a relationship with the young person’s family or friends to make them seem trustworthy or authoritative.
Children and young people can be groomed online, in person or both – by a stranger or someone they know. This could be a family member, a friend or someone who has targeted them – like a teacher, faith group leader or sports coach. When a child is groomed online, groomers may hide who they are by sending photos or videos of other people. Sometimes this’ll be of someone younger than them to gain the trust of a “peer”. They might target one child online or contact lots of children very quickly and wait for them to respond.
Signs of Grooming
It can be difficult to tell if a child or adult is being groomed – the signs aren’t always obvious and may be hidden. Older children might behave in a way that seems to be “normal” teenage behaviour, masking underlying problems. Groomers might also try and isolate children from their friends and family, making them feel dependent on them and giving the groomer power and control over them. They might use blackmail that results in a child or adult feeling guilty and / or shame, or introduce the idea of ‘secrets’ to control, frighten and intimidate them.
County Lines is where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs. The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs.