A boy at risk of exploitation sits on a rooftop

Child Exploitation: A Hidden Crisis

Type Policy and research document

Published on
1 June 2023

Children face a range of complex and interconnected threats both on- and offline, including sexual abuse and exploitation, criminal exploitation, and trafficking. Specialist services play a vital role in supporting and safeguarding children who are at risk of experiencing or have experienced criminal and/or sexual exploitation.

Read our recommendations on how children who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually abused and/or exploited, can be safeguarded and supported.


Barnardo’s currently delivers 45 specialist services to support victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation across the UK and hosts the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (also known as the CSA centre), which works to reduce the impact of child sexual abuse through improved prevention and better response, and which reaches thousands of professionals through its training and research.

Increasingly, in Barnardo’s own child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child criminal exploitation (CCE) services, we are supporting children and young people through police investigations and court cases, and the associated trauma that they bring. Barnardo’s services also provide support to the families of children who have experienced exploitation.

Having access to specialist services can reduce future harms, including tackling the sources of harm, going missing from home, alcohol and drug abuse, accommodation and housing needs and interaction with the criminal justice system, and instead can mean a child is kept safe and supported, and is supported to access education, training and employment (Pro Bono Economics, 2022). Evidence shows that for every £1 invested in specialist services for child sexual exploitation, it can save the taxpayer up to £12 (ibid).

What is exploitation?

Exploitation is a hidden harm, but one that many children experience each year. All children are vulnerable to exploitation and Barnardo’s is concerned that the cost-of-living crisis will mean that more children could be targeted and exploited – which could increase further during the summer holidays.

Child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation are both forms of child abuse and are often closely interlinked.

Compounding the crisis: cost-of-living and summer holidays

Additional stresses and pressures can increase the risk of child exploitation, with those who seek to exploit children seeking to use adversity to coerce children into criminal and sexual activity. 

Given the mounting financial pressures that families are facing, Barnardo’s is concerned that the cost-of-living crisis will have similar effects on child exploitation. As children and families struggle to afford basic goods and pressure on families increases, organised criminal gangs and individuals could look to exploit this, and draw children in to criminal and sexual exploitation.

In a survey of Barnardo’s practitioners undertaken in February 2023, almost half (45%) of practitioners feel that children and young people are at a greater risk of being sexually and/or criminally exploited due to the cost-of-living crisis (Barnardo’s Practitioner Survey, February 2023). 

As we approach summer, it’s likely that these concerns will increase. When children are out of school and unsupervised, including during school holidays, they may be more vulnerable to exploitation. Evidence shows that even being missing from school for a short time, such as being missing for part of the school day, can increase the risk of both sexual and criminal exploitation (HMICFRS, HM Inspectorate of Probation, Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, 2018)

Youth Clubs. That’s what we need. Youth club used to be sick and then one day they just disappeared. There was bare youth clubs… they just want the kids to be on the streets now. They don’t have nothing.

Young person supported by Barnardo’s


We are calling for the following to safeguard and support children who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually abused and/or exploited.

  • Expand and invest in specialist services for victims of child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation. This should include a ring-fenced fund for local authorities and, in England and Wales, for police and crime commissioners.
  • Use the Victims and Prisoners Bill to introduce a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation (CCE) in England to better help professionals to identify victims, and make sure that they are supported appropriately.  
  • Require service commissioners to build effective locally informed joint commissioning strategies which meet the needs of children who are being exploited in their areas by strengthening the duty to collaborate in the Victims and Prisoners Bill.
  • Use the opportunity of the Online Safety Bill to strengthen protection for children online, including by naming child criminal exploitation as a harm on the face of the Bill.
  • Expand and invest in support for children and young people to help to protect them and prevent exploitation. This should include increased investment in youth services and expanding access to the Holiday Food and Activities Programme to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.
  • Ensure Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) in schools have funding to continue to support children across holiday periods in England and Wales.
  • Provide enhanced training and support, pre- and post-qualification, for all professionals working with children, so that they have the knowledge and confidence that they need to better protect children by identifying signs of and responding to child sexual abuse, exploitation and child criminal exploitation.
  • Roll out the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian (ICTG) service nationally across all of England and Wales to enable all children that have been identified as trafficked to have specialist support, as underpinned by Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Scotland recommendations

  • The Scottish Government should publish an updated national action plan to tackle exploitation of children and young people, including CSE and CCE.
  • Invest in Scotland-specific research on the scale and nature of CSE and CCE.
  • A child who has experienced exploitation talks to a Barnardo's support worker

    No child should be left to cope with being exploited

    Sexual and criminal exploitation can have a life-changing impact on a child, leaving them traumatised and feeling alone if they don’t get the support they need to recover. Learn how we're addressing this issue. 

  • Young people and adults hold a petition in front of the door of 10 Downing Street

    Campaign with us

    Sometimes we need to take a stand on behalf of children and campaign for changes in law or behaviour that will transform their lives – and we need your help.

  • A young boy sits on a step talking to a Barnardo's support worker

    Our policy work

    Based on evidence-based research we call for improvements to the law, policy, or practice that will help change children’s lives and the systems around them for the better. Find out more about our work and latest research.