Quick Guide: Child criminal exploitation

Quick Guide: Child criminal exploitation


This Quick Guide provides information on the law and practice in relation to young people who are facing exclusion having been victims of criminal exploitation, or who are at risk of exploitation after their exclusion.

What is child criminal exploitation?

The statutory guidance titled Working Together to Safeguard Children, defines child criminal exploitation (CCE) as:

Where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity

  1. in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or
  2. for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or
  3. through violence or the threat of violence.

The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

CCE takes a variety of forms, but ultimately it is the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity. Commonly, this occurs as a part of the selling of illicit drugs and has become most associated with "county lines" drug trafficking, in which young people are made to act as couriers for drugs originating in the cities and being transported into other areas. However, it can also include children being forced to work in cannabis factories, being forced to commit financial fraud, being forced to shoplift or pickpocket, or being forced to threaten other young people. However, it should be noted that there is no definition in the primary legislation of CCE.

Young people are groomed into criminal activity through a process that sees the perpetrator build and then abuse the victims’ trust or friendship. This can be highly effective, and the victims may not see themselves as victims or may not know how to seek help.

As a result, this is an incredibly difficult problem to identify and respond to. However, the consequences for children and young people caught up in this practice can be dire. The most obvious is contact with the criminal justice system. Those caught carrying drugs or weapons face significant sanctions, including custodial sentences. Additionally, the control of young people can involve violence, which puts them at risk. Finally, violence with others involved in the drug trade puts the young people involved at routine risk of serious physical harm.

It is therefore important that all professionals working with potential victims are aware of the signs of exploitation and know how to respond if they spot them.

What is the link with school exclusion?

The National Crime Agency identifies placement in alternative provision (AP) as a factor that will increase a young person’s risk of CCE. The Children’s Society, the National Police Chief’s Council, and the Home Office have all identified exclusion from mainstream education as a factor that places young people at risk of CCE, with the NSPCC stating that children are more likely to be exploited when "they’ve been excluded from school and don’t feel they have a future".

The number of children in the criminal justice system who have experienced exclusion is enormous. There are several reasons for this. Children in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are typically supervised for fewer hours per week than those in mainstream education, and some children disappear from the education system altogether and do not attend AP. Some families opt not to send children to a PRU for fear of the detrimental consequences, even where there is no other placement on the table.

Reports gathered from children by Just for Kids Law suggest that many also experience a process of institutionalisation in PRUs, with exposure to violence, drugs, and gang associations that had not been present in mainstream schools. These risks multiply when the young person is already vulnerable to exploitation because, for example, they have additional needs that make them easier to manipulate, or they have siblings or other family members who have become involved in criminal activity, or they live in, or the PRU exists in, an area known to be one where exploitation takes place.

What responsibility do schools have to consider exploitation before excluding someone?

In the criminal courts, if a child is referred through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and found to be the victim of CCE, they may have a defence in law to the offences they are charged with. However, in education, there is no equivalent. The NRM is the statutory framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and human trafficking (including exploitation) to ensure they receive necessary protection, of which CCE is one type of exploitation.

The responsibility of schools to consider exploitation as a factor in a person’s behaviour or to consider a young person’s vulnerability to it prior to imposing an exclusion is not explicitly set out anywhere in law or guidance. However, there are several existing sets of rules that may be helpful.

In education law

These aspects of education law are covered in detail throughout this platform, particularly in the Quick Guide: The headteacher’s power to exclude. Some important points are picked out here, and their relevance to CCE is explained.

The governing board has a broad duty under paragraph 114 of the Statutory Exclusions Guidance to consider the interests and circumstances of the excluded pupil before deciding whether to uphold the exclusion. Clearly, the interests of the young person include their safety and wellbeing. In addition, if it can be demonstrated that their offending behaviour will be ended if the link between them and their exploiter is broken, this will not only be in their interests but in the interests of the rest of the school community too.

Schools must only exclude as a last resort. If there is a productive alternative to exclusion, it should be pursued. This may include engaging with safeguarding programmes that may be able to end that young person’s exploitation and prevent their further engagement with offending behaviour.

The main test for exclusions at paragraph 11 of the exclusions guidance makes clear that a young person must only be excluded if their remaining in the school “would seriously harm the education or welfare of themselves or others in the school”. If a young person’s exploitation can be ended, and this would prevent further disruptive behaviour, then this test is not met because the young person could be safely returned to school. Therefore, where ending a young person’s exploitation is an alternative to school exclusion, it should be pursued instead.

Paragraph 4 of the exclusions guidance directs a headteacher to account for factors that may have contributed to a young person’s behaviour. Their exploitation would, of course, be a clear and direct contributor to behaviours such as carrying drugs, and a headteacher should ensure this is factored into their decision-making.

In safeguarding rules

The statutory guidance titled Keeping Children Safe in Education is binding on schools and colleges.

It contains general provisions about the requirements to safeguard young people in the education system, and a specific section on criminal exploitation. 

For the purpose of the guidance, safeguarding involves four activities, each of which touch on the issue of criminal exploitation:

  • protecting children from maltreatment;
  • preventing impairment of children’s mental and physical health or development;
  • ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and
  • taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

Bearing in mind that exploitation is maltreatment, a risk to the victim’s mental and physical health, incompatible with safe care and a mortal threat to their best outcomes, it is very clear that all of these activities relate to CCE .

A school therefore must take steps to prevent CCE . When an exclusion would further that young person’s exploitation, a school must account for that and they should not exclude simply as a matter of policy where that exclusion presents a safeguarding risk to the young person.

The KCSIE guidance also includes specific information to school leaders about CCE . It combines its definition with Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), but it is still helpful to demonstrate to schools what they should be watching for and warning signs they should be aware of. It states at paragraph 36:

Both CSE and CCE are forms of abuse that occur where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance in power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child into taking part in sexual or criminal activity, in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or through violence or the threat of violence. CSE and CCE can affect children, both male and female and can include children who have been moved (commonly referred to as trafficking) for the purpose of exploitation.

It also states from paragraphs 37-39:

Some specific forms of CCE can include children being forced or manipulated into transporting drugs or money through county lines, working in cannabis factories, shoplifting, or pickpocketing. They can also be forced or manipulated into committing vehicle crime or threatening/committing serious violence to others.

Children can become trapped by this type of exploitation, as perpetrators can threaten victims (and their families) with violence or entrap and coerce them into debt. They may be coerced into carrying weapons such as knives or begin to carry a knife for a sense of protection from harm from others. As children involved in criminal exploitation often commit crimes themselves, their vulnerability as victims is not always recognised by adults and professionals, (particularly older children), and they are not treated as victims despite the harm they have experienced. They may still have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears to be something they have agreed or consented to.

It is important to note that the experience of girls who are criminally exploited can be very different to that of boys. The indicators may not be the same, however professionals should be aware that girls are at risk of criminal exploitation too. It is also important to note that both boys and girls being criminally exploited may be at higher risk of sexual exploitation.

Some of the following can be indicators of both child criminal and sexual exploitation where children:

  • appear with unexplained gifts, money or new possessions
  • associate with other children involved in exploitation
  • suffer from changes in emotional well-being
  • misuse alcohol and other drugs
  • go missing for periods of time or regularly come home late, and
  • regularly miss school or education or do not take part in education.

In public law

As is made clear in the guidance on exclusions, an exclusion must be proportionate. This means that the greater the impact on the excluded child, the greater the justification must be for imposing it. Where an exclusion calls into question the physical safety of a young person and looks likely to expose them to the criminal justice system, exploitation, and serious injury, that exclusion may be challengeable on the grounds that it is disproportionate to impose such a punishment.

What should a school do instead of excluding a victim of exploitation?

Commonly, the reason for imposing exclusions on a student who is being exploited is serious. This is because when young people are criminally exploited, it is typically with the objective of carrying drugs. They will also be more likely to carry a weapon. Both of these offences are often red-line issues for a school, which will result in immediate permanent exclusion.

Some schools may be sympathetic to the student’s situation but fear for the safety of the rest of the school community. They may ask you, as a representative for the young person, to suggest what other options are realistically open to them to respond to a serious situation.

There are a range of options available to the school, and should a family wish, they may want to put constructive proposals forward:

  • The National Referral Mechanism (NRM): The NRM is the statutory framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and human trafficking (including exploitation) to ensure they receive necessary protection, of which CCE is one type. The NRM framework aims to protect child victims of exploitation and prompt appropriate support. Schools can refer a child to the NRM by locating an appropriate “first responder” such as children’s social services or some NGOs and providing them with the details of their concerns. Read more on the NRM, the referral process, and how to ensure the right outcome in this ECPAT guide. You can also read about CCE in the Youth Justice Legal Centre’s guide to CCE .
  • Managed move: With the consent of the family, a school can arrange to move a child to another school voluntarily. If a new school out of that young person’s area would be a productive way of ending their exploitation, the family may want to consider requesting this option. More information can be found in the Quick Guide: Managed moves
  • Behavioural contract: A student can sign a behavioural contract with the school, which may include requirements that they report to staff over a certain period, that they allow their bag to be searched on arrival, and other measures deemed necessary. This may reassure the school that the young person will not have dangerous items with them on arrival. Of course, this can only work if the young person consents and agrees to allow these intrusive measures to be taken. Many young people fear being seen to cooperate against their exploiters or refuse to acknowledge that they are the victims of CCE, which may frustrate their engagement with a contract.
  • Involvement of external services: A family may wish to inform external services who can support the young person. Of course, if safeguarding concerns are identified, they or the school may have a responsibility to alert external services, even over the young person’s objections. These referrals may engage the support of specialist exploitation workers or charity workers who can support the young person to recognise the reality of their situation and take effective steps to sever the link between themselves and their exploiters. The police may be informed. If they are and wish to speak with the young person, the family should seek criminal legal advice as soon as possible.

Even if the family cannot provide an agreeable plan, this does not mean that the school has a tacit agreement to proceed with the exclusion. It is the school’s responsibility to take safeguarding steps, and the family is not under an obligation to make a positive plan for a young person’s safety.


  • Abianda: A London-based enterprise that works with young women affected by gangs and county lines aged up to 25, and the professionals who support them. Young women follow a structured programme of topics that is designed to help them grow their critical thinking. Abianda provides a wraparound one-to-one and advocacy service for young women affected by gangs and county lines. Young women get a dedicated Abianda practitioner who will meet with them weekly (or more if needed).
  • AFRUCA: Therapeutic services, advocacy, a victim support worker and referral service, expert reports, and training. Culturally appropriate therapeutic service for BME children, young people, and families who have survived or have been at risk of different forms of child abuse and exploitation.
  • Barnardo’s Independent Child Trafficking Guardians: Provide direct, specialist support to trafficked children. Help young victims cope with the practical and emotional trauma of being trafficked. Specialist support workers help them understand what is happening with social care services, the police, and immigration in ways that they can understand. Runs specialist Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship Service (ICTGS) services in Wales/Cymru, the East Midlands, the West Midlands Combined Authorities, Croydon, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, and Greater Manchester. Runs a specialist fostering service in the southeast that finds safe and loving homes for trafficked children.
  • Fearless: A site where young people can access non-judgmental information and advice about crime and criminality. Currently, there are seven Fearless Outreach Workers delivering workshops to young people and professionals in a variety of areas across the country.
  • SafeCall: A service provided by UK charity Missing People that supports children and young people who have been away from home and exploited by gangs or involved with country lines. A trained and dedicated telephone advisor can offer a safe space to discuss their experiences, explore their options, and help formulate a safety plan. SafeCall can also be accessed by parents and carers of exploited young people for emotional support, confidential discussions, and guidance on keeping family members safe.
  • Safer London: Supports young men and women aged 15 to 24, who are at significant risk of harm from violence in the community, at risk to themselves, or who pose a risk of harm to others. Can support young Londoners living in any borough who aren’t already receiving support from local services or other statutory organisations, or if the services they require aren’t available locally to them. Young people are allocated a dedicated support worker who will work with them one-on-one over an extended period of time, usually six months. The intervention is tailored to meet the young person’s needs, including support surrounding safety awareness, improving health and well-being, and improving relationships with peers and family dynamics. The sessions are delivered in a place that is safe for that young person, whether this is at home, school, or elsewhere in the community. Specialist family workers work one-on-one with parents.
  • Streets of Growth: Streets of Growth is an outcome-driven charity, working to reduce harm and positively transform the lives of the most vulnerable and at-risk young people and their families in Tower Hamlets, East London (and neighbouring boroughs).
  • St Giles Trust: Help for vulnerable young people involved in or at risk of criminal exploitation. Direct, intensive help for young people and those around them. Work with those at risk through prevention and awareness-raising, and offer support to parents and professionals working with young people.
  • Unseen UK: Women’s and men’s safehouses allow survivors of trafficking and slavery to access a range of services, including: emergency and ongoing medical care and treatment; trauma counselling; legal advice and assistance; financial assistance; immigration advice; assistance to return home or to reside in the UK; holistic therapy sessions; access to education, employment, or volunteering; and training in how to assess safe relationships. Ofsted-registered Unseen Children’s House is a pilot project with the first specialised safehouse for trafficked children in the UK. Volunteer house parents provided a loving family environment for up to three trafficked children, while a specialist staff team provided bespoke support, and increased security features kept children safe. The UK Modern Slavery Helpline and Resource Centre provides a means for victims, the public, statutory agencies, and businesses to report concerns and get help and advice on a 24/7 basis. The Modern Slavery Helpline is fully independent and confidential. It is free to call 0800 121 700, submit reports online, or spot the signs of modern slavery and report concerns using the free Unseen App.
  • Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile: A non-residential therapeutic community, every child and young person is provided with a key worker, a mixture of psychotherapeutic and therapeutic help, with the possibility of accessing individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, practical casework and social work support, and a variety of group-based therapeutic activities, including regular music workshops, a philosophy discussion group, individual and group English classes, as well as holiday projects and an annual summer therapeutic retreat.
  • ECPAT UK: Supporting children who have been trafficked, youth programme, campaigning and lobbying, expert reports, training.
  • NSPCC Child Trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC): Advice line, training, advocates, first-responder.
  • The Children’s Society: Work with boys and young men aged 11–25 who have been trafficked to the UK, providing advocacy, a fortnightly boys’ group in partnership with ECPATUK, and raising awareness.
  • The Refugee Council: Have both a trafficked boys or young men’s project and a trafficked girls or young women’s project. The project offers direct support to these children, focusing on their safety and protection while supporting them through the various legal and other processes that they have to undergo. They also offer advice to others involved in their care. The Refugee Council Children’s Section also provides a therapeutic service.

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This information is correct at the time of writing, 5th September 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

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