Published on
23 April 2021

Daljeet Dagon, National Programme Manager for Child Sexual Exploitation at Barnardo’s Scotland, explains what is needed to protected Scottish children from criminal exploitation. 

The criminal exploitation of children and young people is not new, however, its visibility and prevalence is creating concern in both urban and rural areas across Scotland.

Whilst our knowledge and awareness about how we can pro-actively intervene in the recruitment, grooming and widespread violence and criminal exploitation that our children and young people face is limited, they often get missed or assessed out of the system at early stages – only later identified after numerous exploitative incidences resulting in trauma responses and physical injury. Often when they are identified they are treated through a youth justice lens problem with agencies finding it difficult to hold a child protection perspective for a child who may be “viewed” as harming others or committing crimes.

As with other forms of exploitation, the criminal exploitation of children is never the fault of the child. Children become vulnerable due to their circumstances and when their needs are not being met. All children are therefore potentially vulnerable to abuse and or exploitation by virtue of being children. 

Abusers exploit the vulnerabilities experienced by children in ways that mask the nature of the abuse. Interventions however often focus on the resulting consequences of criminal exploitation never addressing the causal societal factors.

From the media coverage it is clear that the public have some knowledge of criminal exploitation, largely referred to as “county lines”. What Barnardo’s Scotland’s joint campaign with Fearless aims to expose is that whilst we have made some progress in understanding some of the tactics used by offenders to exploit children such as “county lines” the exploitation of children goes beyond just the “county lines” model.

As professionals, we are required to understand what the core operating models of offenders are so that we can develop a coherent local picture that helps us to fully understand the criminal activity and safeguarding issues impacting on our children.   It is clear that significant gaps remain, in particular, understanding and tackling the conditions that exist in communities and sometimes even families resulting in a seemingly never ending access to vulnerable children and young people who can be exploited for an offender’s own gains.  

If we are to effectively respond to children and young people at most risk of being exploited, we need to be better at:

  • Identifying and engaging with children and young people – many of whom are unknown to services or find traditional services culturally inaccessible
  • Supporting the disruption of harmful behaviours of adults and older peers and prevent the recruitment, coercion and manipulation of children into violent and criminal activity
  • Building protective networks of family, schools and communities around children that stop sources of harm accessing the child, their siblings and their wider networks
  • Supporting and protecting children so as to enable them to break free from this harm
  • Helping families to recover by delivering strong trauma informed therapeutic practice in culturally accessible ways and in places/spaces that supports them to re-engage in positive pathways free from violence and exploitation.

The key to our practice is disruption - we need to disrupt adults and older peers external to the family as well as adults or older siblings within families who may have been integral to the child’s exploitation.

We need to safeguard and protect individual children, their families and peers as well as vulnerable adults who may be at risk or are already experiencing exploitation. It is essential that as practitioners, we are equipped to work at all stages of a child’s risk as the true extent of risk is often unknown at the point of referral or can escalate quickly.

Working collaboratively is key - we cannot protect children alone and close multi-agency working and child protection strategies will be essential as will grassroots knowledge and links.

We also need to intervene to stop children already impacted as victims being tracked into offending activity or help them exit this without criminalising them where possible.

The damage criminal exploitation does is immense and has a ripple effect across society.  It also has a significant impact on our children and young people’s mental health with a loss of identity and self-esteem; lack of positive coping strategies; guilt and shame; bereavement and loss of peers; The trauma caused and the reparation work required to cope with the aftermath of this exploitation cannot be underestimated.

We need to work together to create safe and empowering pathways for children, young people, their families, schools and communities.

As a practitioner in direct contact with children, young people and their families, you are in a unique position to make a difference to a child’s life. Children and young people talk to people they want to, who they like, who are important to them and who they feel safe with. That might be you.


Daljeet Dagon is the Child Sexual Exploitation Programme Manager for Barnardo's Scotland. She has over 20 years' direct practice and management experience working with children, young people and families affected by child sexual exploitation. provides young people with a safe and 100% anonymous way to speak up if they know or suspect who is responsible for crime, including child exploitation.

Young people can visit and complete a short online form. That information is then processed 24/7 and passed to Police Scotland for full investigation. The charity can’t track IP addresses or any contact details.

For more information about our joint campaign - Scotland CCE - Fearless.