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Child exploitation – what is it and how do I report it?

Thousands of children and young people, some as young as 12, are exploited sexually and criminally every day in communities across Avon and Somerset. We are dedicated to ending child exploitation in all its forms.

Here Detective Chief Inspector Larisa Hunt and prevention officer and coordinator Androulla Nicolaou from Operation Topaz – our child protection team – discuss what child exploitation is, what we’re doing to tackle it, and what communities can do to help prevent child exploitation from happening.

What is child exploitation and who does it affect?

DCI Larisa Hunt: “Child exploitation happens when a child under 18 is given things like money, phones, clothing, accommodation, affection in exchange for performing a sexual act or for dealing drugs. They are tricked by a person who has power over them because of their age or status in to believing there is a relationship. The exploiter ‘grooms’ the child to do what they want them to do. They may also use violence, financial control or intimidate them to make them feel that they have no choice.

“Children are often too frightened or embarrassed to report their abuse and it can be tricky to spot. By being familiar with a few keys signs people who work with children and members of the public can help us put a stop to children exploitation by reporting to the police. The more information we have about child exploitation, the easier it is for us to build a picture of how and where these crimes are taking place, and how we can stop them from occurring”.

Prevention officer and coordinator Androulla Nicolaou: “It can happen to any child – boy or girl – under the age of 18, anywhere, anytime. They can be from any background, religion, ethnicity and nationality. There isn’t really a stereotypical victim of exploitation but there are warning signs that can indicate something is wrong”.

What is Avon and Somerset Police doing to tackle child exploitation? 

DCI Larisa Hunt:  “We know how harmful child exploitation can be to children, their families and their communities and we are committed to putting a stop to it. We take a multi-agency approach to tackling child exploitation and work with a number of partners across our force area to build a better picture of the issue and to put measures in place to put a stop to it.

“Operation Topaz, which is our specialist team, is dedicated towards disrupting child exploitation activity from taking place. We work with analysts who understand child exploitation and use lots of different data, tools and methods to identify cases for us to deal with. The team also has engagement officers who work directly with children we suspect are being exploited. Their role is to build a relationship with victims, to meet with them and offer support and guidance when they decide they are ready to speak with the police”.

Where does child exploitation happen? 

DCI Larisa Hunt: “Sadly, child exploitation can happen in a number of different places. It can happen at school, out on the streets in the community, at fast food outlets, playgrounds and home. It also doesn’t need to involve physical contact; it can involve the use of technology and take place online”.

What are the signs of child exploitation? 

Prevention officer and coordinator Androulla Nicolaou: “Many cases of child exploitation have been linked to fast food outlets, taxi firms and hotel rooms to facilitate and conduct abuse. There are many signs which people working in these industries can be aware of. These include:

• Arriving at a hotel in a taxi and checking in with one or more adults who don’t seem to be family,
• Staying out late with older adults who don’t seem to be family,
• Buying alcoholic drinks for a child who is already intoxicated,
• Accompanied by an adult who is suspected of being involved in prostitution,
• Involved in sexual activity with one or more adults,
• Guests who seem secretive and are trying to hide a young person,
• Paying in cash and want to check in under a different name to the booking,
• Asking for an isolated room and don’t want it cleaning,
• Walking in and booking last minute,
• Asking for a room number but don’t know the name of the person staying there,
• Guests with no luggage and no form of identification.

“There are also signs people working with children such as teachers and carers, as well as family and friends can be aware of including:

• Becoming secretive; stop seeing their usual friends; have sharp severe mood swings,
• Developing relationships with older men and/or women (although not all perpetrators are older),
• Receiving calls and messages from outside their normal circle of friends,
• New, expensive items that they couldn’t afford such as mobile phones, Ipods, jewellery,
• Suddenly changing taste in dress or music,
• Looking tired or unwell and sleeping at unusual hours,
• Marks or scars on their body which they try to hide,
• Regularly missing school,
• Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.
• Unsuitable or inappropriate accommodation (street, staying with adults known to be involved in child sexual exploitation)
• Living independently and failing to respond to attempts by workers to keep in touch,
• Frequent use of public transport.”

What is county lines and is it associated to child exploitation?

Prevention officer and coordinator Androulla Nicolaou: “County lines is the name given to gangs and organised criminal networks who move illegal drugs out of bigger cities and into smaller towns. These drug gangs will often use children and young people to store, transport and sell drugs. Young people are expertly groomed by gangs and are often taken away from their homes to the other side of the country, subjected to constant threats and violence, forced to live in ‘trap houses’ selling drugs 24/7 without being able to eat or sleep.

“The act of grooming and using young people to sell illegal substances is a form of criminal exploitation and represents a significant threat to our children. By being able to recognise a few signs of county lines, you could be helping to save a child’s life. For more information on county lines and the signs to look out for visit: Report concerns about county lines and cuckooing | Avon and Somerset Police”.

What should I do if I suspect a child is being exploited? 

Prevention officer and coordinator Androulla Nicolaou: “If you suspect something isn’t quite right with a child – trust your instincts – they could be a victim of exploitation. Call 101 to report to the police as soon as possible. You can also report child exploitation via our online reporting form on our website here: Report child sexual exploitation | Avon and Somerset Police  Always dial 999 in an emergency.

“You can also report 100% anonymously to Crimestoppers by calling 0800 555 111”.