We help children who have been criminally exploited or are at risk of being exploited. Learn more about the criminal exploitation of children, or child criminal exploitation (CCE) as it’s known, from our experts who work in this area.  

What is child criminal exploitation (CCE)? 

Criminal exploitation is when an individual or a group manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls someone under the age of 18 to take part in any activity which breaks the law.  All children are at risk of criminal exploitation, including girls. 

You may have heard the term "county lines," this is one form of criminal exploitation. It is when people involved in criminal activity identify, target and befriend children, either online or offline, and manipulate them into dealing drugs or other activities across geographical areas.  

Criminal exploitation can take many forms, from making children hold, hide or deliver drugs, money or weapons, to forcing children to steal, harm others or beg.

Children can also be exploited in other ways, such as through sexual exploitation. Sometimes a child can be exploited criminally and sexually at the same time. 

Learn more about child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation from our experts who work in this area.

Children may also have been trafficked around the UK or to the UK from another country and forced into child labour, modern slavery, or criminal activities.

How are children criminally exploited?

A teenage boy at risk of CCE holds a mobile phone and looks at the camera

Exploitation is a form of abuse, and it happens when those who want to harm, do so. A child is never to blame for being exploited.

All children are at risk of being criminally exploited.

However, some young people may be more at risk because they have more unmet needs that exploiters will use to manipulate and control them. This might include those who have experienced previous abuse, are homeless, are misusing alcohol and drugs, have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), are in care, are out of education, have run away/ gone missing from home or care, or are involved with a gang (Barnardo's hosted Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, 2021).

When a child is trafficked or criminally exploited, this can involve the use of violence or fear of violence towards the child or their family. But this is not always the case. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic some children were at increased risk of criminal exploitation, and our frontline workers are concerned that the cost-of-living crisis will have the same impact. Mounting financial pressures could mean more children will be coerced into criminal activity, through the promise of money to support their families or to buy basic necessities. 

What barriers do children face to getting help for criminal exploitation?

There are many barriers for children who are being criminally exploited to access the help and support they deserve.

Children can often be criminalised by those who need to protect them rather than being recognised as being exploited and manipulated.  Children can commit criminal offences whilst being exploited, but they may fear for their own safety or the safety of their family if they don’t do what they are told to do.  

Criminal exploitation can be challenging to recognise for parents and professionals. Children themselves may not recognise or understand that they are being or have been exploited. 

We can support children being exploited by learning how to recognise the signs and indicators of exploitation, and in taking the time to talk to them if we notice anything we might be concerned about. 

What are the signs and indicators that a child is being criminally exploited?

It's important to be aware of the signs and indicators of child criminal exploitation. Child criminal exploitation can take many different forms, all of which can cause serious harm.  

There are different types of exploitation that children can experience. They can often occur simultaneously with other forms of exploitation and abuse. Although there is no exhaustive list and no two experiences of criminal exploitation are the same, the following are some of the signs and indicators you can look out for. 

    Behavioural signs of criminal exploitation can include: 

    • avoiding certain people, places or situations 
    • sudden changes in behaviour, mood or appearance 
    • reluctance to participate in activities they once enjoyed 
    • emotional outbursts or extreme mood swings 
    • fear of being alone with certain individuals 
    • withdrawing from family and friends 

    Physical signs of criminal exploitation can include: 

    • unexplained bruises, cuts, or injuries on the body 
    • difficulty walking or sitting 
    • torn, stained or bloody underwear 
    • signs of restraint, such as rope burns or handcuff marks 
    • drug or alcohol addiction 

     Online signs of criminal exploitation can include: 

    • secretive or unusual computer or smartphone usage 
    • receiving gifts or packages from unfamiliar people 
    • sharing personal information with strangers online 
    • being approached by strangers online or through social media platforms 

    If you suspect that your child is being exploited, it's important to take action right away. Speak with your child immediately and provide them with a safe and supportive environment where they can share their concerns. Additionally, you should report any suspicions of child exploitation to your local authorities or child protection agencies. 

    What should I do if I’m worried a child is being exploited?

    If you think a child is being harmed or in immediate danger of being harmed dial 999  or contact your local authority social care department, or the NSPCC. 

    Find out more about where to get help if you're worried about a child. 

    If you’re worried a child is being exploited, it’s important to reach out to professionals and share your worries, as the information provided can be vital to providing the correct support.

    How do we help children affected by criminal exploitation?

    Barnardo’s is one of the leading charities, supporting children and their families who are at risk of, or who have experienced exploitation. We help by:

    • driving awareness of the issue and calling for better support for those who experience exploitation
    • influencing change in policy and law, such as better protections for children online and increased understanding of criminal exploitation
    • run services across the UK which offer direct support to those who’ve experienced exploitation, supporting with trauma recovery
    • Barnardo's hosts the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse which provides training and advice to a range of organisations on the best approaches to working with children who have been sexually abused and exploited 
    • preventing exploitation by working with those at risk and educating professionals to spot the signs
    • How to talk to a child about their safety 

      Read our tips from experts for having positive conversations with your child about concerns you have for their safety and wellbeing.

    • Talking about exploitation

      What is online grooming? What does county lines mean? Terms like these are frequently used when discussing the exploitation and abuse of children. However we should think carefully about the word choices we make. Find out about common terms used, as well as the language we should use and why.

    • Supporting your child's mental health

      Get help with supporting children and young people's mental health, with tips and information about anxiety, depression and general wellbeing.