Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a crime that can affect any child, anytime, anywhere - regardless of their social or ethnic background.

The 'Say something' helpline provides help and advice for young people around child sexual exploitation.

Phone or text: 116 000 free for immediate support 24/7.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Sexual exploitation is a type of child abuse. It puts a young person at huge risk of damage to their physical, emotional and psychological health.

CSE involves young people and children being 'groomed' and sexually exploited.  It can take  many forms, such as through an apparently 'consensual' relationship with an older person or a young person having sex in return for attention, gifts, cigarettes or alcohol.

Many young people who are being exploited do not realise they are at risk and will not ask for help. Some may see themselves as willing participants in such abuse, not realising that what is happening to them is illegal.

There are warning signs that may indicate something is wrong. If you know what you're looking for, you can take steps to help them.

What are the signs that a child or young person is being sexually exploited?

  • Has the young person received unexplained gifts or money?
  • Do they use their mobile phone excessively and/or secretively?
  • Do they have significantly older friends?
  • Have they been picked up from home or school by someone you don't know?
  • Are they associating with other young people who are already known to be vulnerable or involved in exploitation?
  • Have they started playing truant from school or regularly going missing from home?
  • Have they suffered from a sexually-transmitted infection?
  • Are they self-harming?
  • Has their appearance changed?

Will a child tell me this is happening to them?

Most parents find it hard to believe this kind of thing could happen to their child. And if your child was dealing with something this awful, you’d know about it, wouldn’t you?

Here’s why it’s unlikely your child would tell you or others:

  • The grooming process – perpetrators gain control over children by grooming them – it’s an incredibly powerful process and many children don’t stand a chance against it. Once a child does something – even something really small – that they know they might get ‘in trouble’ for, they become vulnerable to threats and coercion. So they get in deeper. The child comes to believe they are in a loving relationship with their exploiter – and is convinced that they are not loved or understood at home

  • Shame and guilt – children often believe the abuse is their own fault (especially if it occurred when they were using drugs or alcohol) and fear they will be blamed or punished for what has happened. They are frightened they could get into trouble from the police for accepting or handling drugs, or may even have developed a dependency on them. They will also feel ashamed of the sexual acts they have been coerced to participate in

  • Fear and blackmail – Exploited children are too frightened to tell anyone what is happening. Threats of violence are made not just to themselves, but towards their family members. They may be blackmailed by indecent images taken during the sexual exploitation. They think they still ‘owe’ the abuser/s for any gifts or substances they have received. They may fear for the perpetrators and what to protect them.


Some young people can be more vulnerable because of their circumstances, such as:

  • Living within a difficult or challenging household
  • Having a lack of friends in the same age group
  • Confusion about their sexuality
  • A history of domestic abuse or neglect
  • Having learning disabilities
  • Coming into contact with other exploited youngsters, e.g. at school
  • Suffering a recent bereavement or loss
  • Being homeless or living in residential care, a hostel or bed and breakfast
  • Having low self-esteem or confidence
  • Being a young carer
  • Living in a gang neighbourhood

If you know a young person displaying warning signs and vulnerabilities from the above list you should take action and seek help.

Offenders come from many different social and ethnic backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common. They are abusing young people and are using their status or position to exploit vulnerable young people.

We will continue to target, disrupt and prosecute offenders to reinforce the message that this type of behaviour is not acceptable, it is a criminal offence.

How can I get help?

If you are being exploited or abused, help is available.  You can call 116 000 for confidential help and advice, click on one of the links on this page or contact us (the police) direct on 101 or 999 if you are in immediate danger. You can also ring childline for help and advice on 0800 11 11.

If you are concerned about a child or young person and want to speak to someone:

Contact us (the police on 101). In an emergency always dial 999.

If you would prefer not to speak to the police you can contact Children's Services in your area:

  • Devon Tel: 0345 155 1071 or email MASH and give as much information as you can. Out of hours: 0845 6000388.
  • Cornwall Tel: 0300 123 1116 or email MARU. Out of hours: 01208 251 300.
  • Torbay Tel: 01803 208100 or email Torbay Safeguarding Hub.
  • Plymouth Tel: 01752 308600. Out of hours: 01752 346784.

What are we doing to tackle child sexual exploitation (CSE)?

We have a Peninsula CSE steering group with a commitment from all agencies to work together in support of our young people, whether vulnerable to or have been victims of child sexual exploitation.

We are building on our existing protective and support processes to prevent CSE and mitigate its impact. There are dedicated members of staff supporting young people to escape the cycle of abuse. Across the peninsula all agencies are working to raise awareness to ensure that everyone is sensitive to CSE and able to spot the signs and take action. 

Devon and Cornwall Police will investigate any report of a child being abused or sexually exploited and work with partner agencies to provide support and safety for any person at risk. We have specialist officers to investigate child abuse and sexual offences who are experienced in supporting children through the process.

Kayleigh's Love Story Trailer

Kayleigh’s Love Story is as a warning to young people about the dangers of speaking to people they don’t know online. The film highlights just how quick and easy it can be for children to be groomed online without them or those around them knowing it is happening. Its purpose is to protect children now and in the future and to stop another family losing a child in this way.

It’s vital that young people understand the importance of staying safe online and parents can spot the signs that may indicate their child is being groomed.

Visit Kayleighs love story for more information

The Sexual Exploitation of Children - Can you recognise the signs?

Barnardos Real Love Rocks, the online space all about raising awareness around Child Sexual Exploitation and what a healthy and safe relationship is.



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