Signs and indicators of child sexual exploitation

Information for parents, carers and professionals about the signs and indicators of child sexual exploitation (CSE)

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse and addressing this form of exploitation is a key focus for Redcar and Cleveland. The local authority has a clear list of actions to help achieve this.  

Agencies work together to ensure that children and young people are protected from the risk of sexual exploitation and families whose lives are affected are supported.  

To support this, we work closely with partner agencies, schools and communities. The Council supports children and young people who go missing because they are vulnerable and to ensure help is provided to reduce harm.

Children who are worried about this issue can contact ChildLine 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 08001111 or by visiting the Childline website.

If you are an adult who is worried that a child may be at risk of sexual exploitation, you can contact Cleveland Police on 101 or the Redcar and Cleveland Multi Agency Children's Hub (MACH) on 01642 130700.

The NSPCC highlights that when a child or young person is exploited they're given things like gifts, drugs, money, status and affection, in exchange for performing sexual activities. Children and young people are often tricked into believing they're in a loving and consensual relationship. This is called grooming. They may trust their abuser and not understand that they're being abused.

Children and young people can be trafficked into or within the UK to be sexually exploited. They can be moved between streets, towns and around the country and abused by being forced to take part in sexual activities, often with more than one person. Young people in gangs can also be sexually exploited.

Sexual exploitation could happen to any child or young person from any background and is not limited to any particular gender, geography, ethnic or social background.

The NSPCC recognises that sometimes abusers use violence and intimidation to frighten or force a child or young person, making them feel as if they've no choice. They may lend them large sums of money they know can't be repaid or use financial abuse to control them.

Anybody can be a perpetrator of CSE, no matter their age, gender or race. The relationship could be framed as friendship, someone to look up to or romantic. Children and young people who are exploited may also be used to 'find' or coerce others to join groups.

Signs of sexual abuse and grooming

Sexual exploitation can be difficult to spot and sometimes mistaken for "normal" teenage behaviour. Children and young people who are victims of sexual exploitation often do not realise that they are being exploited. There are a number of tell-tale signs you should look out for that may indicate a child is being groomed for sexual exploitation.  Knowing the signs can help protect children and help them when they've no one else to turn to.

  • Sharp changes in mood, behaviour or character – being more secretive, withdrawn or isolated from peers.
  • Increasingly disruptive, hostile or physically aggressive at home or school including the use of sexualised language.
  • Expressions of despair (including depression, mental ill-health, self-harm, suicidal thoughts / attempts, overdose, eating patterns or  disorder).
  • Being frightened of some people, places or situations.
  • Change in physical appearance (new clothes, more/less make-up, weight gain/loss).
  • Increasing use or misuse of drugs and alcohol.
  • Physical signs of abuse, like scars or bruises, which they try to conceal or bleeding in their genital or anal area.
  • Receiving gifts and having money, clothing, jewellery or other things they can't or won't explain.
  • Having multiple mobile phones, credit, SIM cards or use of a phone that causes concern – multiple callers or more texts / pings than usual.
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend, who may encourage emotional dependence, loyalty and isolation.
  • Hanging out with older people (men or women), other vulnerable people or in antisocial groups away from the home.
  • Having a new group of friends and not mixing with usual friends.
  • Physical or emotional abuse by a boyfriend / girlfriend or controlling adult including use of manipulation, violence and / or threats.
  • Regularly coming back late, staying out overnight or going missing from home, care or education.
  • Returning home after long intervals appearing well cared for.
  • Reports of being taken to hotels, nightclubs, takeaways or out of area by unknown adults.
  • Stopping going to school or college.
  • Unhealthy or inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • Suffering from sexually transmitted infections.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Overt sexualised dress.
  • Concealed or concerning use of social media, such as sending and receiving indecent images, sexting (sending explicit messages),chatting to strangers online, web-cam use and online gaming.
  • Sexualised risk-taking including
  • Multiple callers.
  • Involved in a gang.
  • Involved in criminal activities, such as selling drugs or shoplifting.

Incidences that must be referred to services 

The NSPCC highlights the following incidences which must be referred to police / Children's Social Care:

  • Entering / leaving vehicles / cars with unknown adults.
  • Frequenting areas known for on/off street work.
  • Child meeting different adults and exchanging or 'selling' sexual activity.
  • Receiving rewards of money or goods for introducing peers to adults.
  • Knowledge of towns or cities they have no previous connection with.
  • Being taken to clubs or hotels and engaging in sexual activity.
  • Seen in CSE hotspots (certain flats, recruiting areas, cars or houses).
  • Suspicions about adults/establishments that have unexplained associations with young people.