Under-reporting of child exploitation during the school holidays reveals invisible victims

Published on
07 July 2023

New data commissioned by Barnardo’s points to child victims of exploitation being ‘invisible’ during school holidays, as critical opportunities to spot warning signs are missed. Barnardo’s new report also shows child victims of exploitation are going unsupported due to a nationwide lack of specialist support services. 

In our new report, Invisible Children: Understanding the risk of the cost-of-living crisis and school holidays on child sexual and criminal exploitation, we've revealed that many children experiencing sexual and criminal exploitation are ‘invisible’ to professionals during the school holidays. We’re concerned that children could be at increased risk of exploitation during school holidays at a time when it is harder to spot, as they spend less time with professionals and trusted adults. 

Exclusive Freedom of Information (FOI) data from police forces across the UK shows that, during months when there are school holidays of two weeks or longer, there are dips in the monthly average police records of child sexual exploitation. This then increases again during term time. Records dip by over one fifth during school holiday periods, then increase by one fifth when term time resumes. We know from its frontline work with children who have been exploited that this abuse doesn't stop when schools are closed. We’re concerned that this data indicates that when children are exploited during the holidays it is less likely to be identified and reported. 

Further FOI results obtained from local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners across the UK also show a concerning lack of specialist support services for victims of child sexual and criminal exploitation. Two thirds (68%) of local authorities, and four in ten (39%) Police and Crime Commissioners have not commissioned any child sexual, criminal or combined exploitation services in the past 12 months. This means that, despite the potential increased risk of child exploitation in the coming weeks at the end of the school year, many victims are not getting the support they need to recover from their trauma. 

Savannah* was sexually exploited when she was 14 and is currently being supported by Barnardo’s. She said, “I had been let down my whole life – broken promise after broken promise from my dad. It makes you desperate for love and affection, particularly from someone older. Exploiters know that, and they make you feel like you’re the only person who matters to them.”  

Before Savannah was referred to Barnardo’s, she had no specialist support and she felt like she was treated like a criminal, rather than the victim she was. She was helped by Barnardo’s practitioner, Amy*. Savannah said, “It was different with Amy, she wasn’t patronising and she told me she would be there for me for as long as I needed. She spoke to me on my level and we had a good relationship from the start … during those dark moments, the only people I had in my corner were my mum, my nan and Barnardo’s. 

“I’m not joking when I say that, if it weren’t for Barnardo’s, I would still be in that deep, dark hole. I would probably be dead is the reality of it. It’s just so sad to think of all the other children who are made to feel the same way and don’t have anyone there fighting their corner.” 

Barnardo’s supports thousands of children and their families every year through 76 child abuse and exploitation services across the UK. But access to specialist support services is only available to children in areas where services were commissioned by Local Authorities because of limited Government funding. This means for many children, they have no access to support services. 

Barnardo’s CEO, Lynn Perry MBE, says, “Summer holidays should be about fun and relaxation, but we are deeply concerned that a growing number of children could be at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation both online and in the community. With many children spending several hours a day without adult supervision, and without activities like youth clubs, there’s a greater risk of harm and a higher likelihood they will go unidentified and unsupported.  

“Children who have experienced this type of horrific abuse will feel its impact long into adulthood. Specialist support is crucial to help them recover from this kind of trauma and rebuild their lives. Last year, Barnardo’s supported over 6,000 children through our child abuse and exploitation services, but we know there are many more who desperately need help.  

“The Government must invest in nationwide specialist support services, such as therapy and counselling, for all children who are victims of exploitation to help them to recover. We also need more investment in services, like youth clubs, that provide safe spaces and help ensure all children have a trusted adult they can turn to in the school holidays.” 

Through Barnardo’s frontline work, we know that time around trusted adults and professionals is crucial to spotting the warning signs of exploitation and taking steps to stop it from happening: 

  • A Barnardo’s practitioner at a child sexual and criminal exploitation service in Tees Valley described schools as the “eyes and ears” regarding exploitation and said that they firmly believe that there is less oversight of exploitation issues during the school holidays. 

  • Adam, an Intern at Leaders Unlocked, which works with children who have experienced disadvantage, said, “Teachers spend the vast majority of their time with young people so they’re the ones who are really going to spot when something is wrong.” 

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union, said, “Schools already make a tremendous contribution to keeping children safe, but schools alone cannot solve the problem of child sexual and criminal exploitation. Regrettably, too many important children’s services have not been properly resourced to address the problem and this situation needs to change.  

“This report raises some important questions about the role and responsibility of government in ensuring that children and families have timely access to services beyond schools that are equipped and resourced to ensure the safety of children and young people when schools are open and when they are not.” 

Ian Critchley, National Police Chiefs’ Council Child Protection and Abuse Investigation said, “We know that teachers, youth workers and trusted adults are so important to children, particularly those who are vulnerable. However, schools and youth organisations can’t tackle this by themselves. We must work together to understand and respond to risks children face in their communities, no matter what school, group or club they attend. We value the referrals made by schools and voluntary organisations, and the importance of information sharing across agencies to safeguard our young people is a key focus for policing and our partners.”  

“I welcome this report from Barnardo’s and the spotlight it shines on this important area of research. We are all working towards ensuring that victims and survivors have a voice and are better protected. This report gives insight into trends that require consideration leading to real action. 

Barnardo’s latest polling, released last month, found 82% of parents believe child victims of exploitation should have a right to access support to help them recover. But right now, too many children are left without the help that they desperately need.   

  ​​​​​​Sign our petition which calls on the Government to ensure that no child is left without specialist support after being exploited.