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Links between child sexual exploitation and running away

Of the 7,000 reports of missing people we received last year, over half involved children or young people.

Today, May 25, is International Missing Children’s Day. To raise awareness, we're supporting the Big Tweet Appeal by the charity Missing People. For more information, visit or search #BigTeamTweet.

A child going missing is often a sign of wider vulnerabilities in that child’s life. They may be experiencing difficulties at home or school or being bullied.

Going missing can also be an indicator of serious harm being done to that child, such as sexual abuse or exploitation.

This page provides information on the links between going missing and child sexual exploitation and outlines how to report concerns if you're worried about a young person.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is when a child is forced or manipulated into sexual activity in return for affection, gifts, money, drugs or alcohol. It can happen to any child, from any community. Boys, as well as girls, can be targeted for sexual exploitation.

CSE can be carried out by individuals, by street gangs or by groups. It can be motivated by money or by sexual gratification. But in all cases, there is an imbalance of power - vulnerable children are controlled and abused by adults or by other children.

There have been a number of reports published in the UK which highlight the link between going missing and child sexual exploitation, with estimates suggesting one in five missing children is potentially being sexually exploited.

Some young people go missing as a consequence of sexual exploitation. Others are at risk of being targeted by perpetrators who groom them for sexual exploitation.

If a child or young person skips school, goes missing from home, stays out all night, or is reluctant to say where they have been or what they have been doing, this could be a warning sign that they are at risk of sexual exploitation.

The signs of CSE: going missing and other changes in a young person’s behaviour

People who sexually exploit children gain control over victims by grooming them. Over time, this grooming changes a child's behaviour. The problem is that these changes can look a lot like typical teenage behaviour, so it’s vital that police, professionals and anyone who cares for children and young people are aware of child sexual exploitation and how to spot it.

The charity Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace) suggests getting advice if a child displays three or more of the following behaviours:

  • Becomes especially secretive; stops seeing their usual friends; has really sharp, severe mood swings
  • Develops relationships with older men and/or women (although not all perpetrators are older)
  • Receives calls and messages from outside their normal circle of friends
  • Has new, expensive items that they couldn't afford, such as mobile phones, iPods or jewellery - as well as 'invisible' or 'virtual' gifts such as phone credit and online gaming credits
  • Suddenly changes their taste in dress or music
  • Looks tired or unwell and sleeps at unusual hours
  • Has marks or scars on their body, which they try to hide.

We must always keep in mind that victims of CSE are unlikely to tell anyone about the abuse they are suffering. Many are too scared to come forward because of the power their abusers exert over them, or don’t see themselves as victims – asking questions and building trust can help a young person feel able to tell someone about the abuse.

How to report your concerns about a child or young person

Please do not wait to act on your concerns or be worried about telling someone - you will be listened to and taken seriously.

If you think a child or young person is in immediate danger, always call 999 straight away.

To report concerns about child sexual exploitation, contact us on 101 or use our secure online reporting form.

Reports can also be made anonymously to Crimestoppers by calling 0800 555 111. They never ask your name or trace your call.

Help and support

We work closely with the Barnardo’s BASE project to support children and young people affected by sexual exploitation. BASE are also part of a new service which launched across Avon and Somerset and Wiltshire last year that identified 160 children and young people who were at risk of CSE. All now are receiving support.


The NSPCC provide a wide range of services for both children, young people and adults, including national helplines staffed by trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help and advice.

  • 0800 1111 (ChildLine)
  • 0808 800 5000 (Support for parents and carers)
  • NSPCC Website

Pace – Parents Against Child Exploitation

Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) work alongside parents and carers of children who are, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited.

Runaway Helpline

If you’re a young person and have run away or are thinking about running away, Runaway Helpline is here for you and will listen and offer support. The helpline is free, 24/7 and confidential.