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Child sexual exploitation underreported with authorities struggling to keep pace, Inquiry report finds

1 February 2022

Extensive failures by local authorities and police forces mean they are struggling to keep pace with the changing nature of sexual exploitation of children by networks, a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has found. It says children are being sexually exploited by networks in all parts of England and Wales in the ‘most degrading and destructive ways’, with many exploited children raped or sexually assaulted repeatedly, over a period of months or even years.

The Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks report noted there appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was decreasing, when in reality it has become more of a hidden problem, increasingly underreported when only linked to other forms of criminal behaviour such as county lines. 

The report focused on St Helens, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Durham, Bristol and Warwickshire, six case study areas that have not already been the subject of well-publicised investigations of child sexual exploitation by networks. During the public hearing, the Inquiry heard harrowing evidence of child sexual exploitation by networks, including evidence in relation to more than 30 children and young people and the institutional response to exploitation of them, as well as victims and survivors, who described their experiences between 2003 and 2011. 

CS-A372 was first raped in 2007 at the age of 12 by a 16-year-old boy who was prosecuted and convicted of rape. At the age of 14, she described being forced to perform oral sex on more than 20 adult men. The abuse was filmed. A number of men were charged but the charges were later dropped. She told the Inquiry how, a few months later, she was abducted by a group of men and held at gunpoint while being forced to perform oral sex on them. She was placed back in care and returned to a pattern of repeated self-harm.

Whilst it is widely recognised that alcohol, drugs and violence are often used as a means to groom and coerce children, the report finds that perpetrators are finding new ways, including through mobile phones, social media and dating apps, to groom and abuse younger children. As the Inquiry has heard in other investigations, some of the worst examples where children – including babies and infants – are live streamed for money, sometimes being sexually abused at the direction of the paying perpetrator.

The report finds that professional language around child sexual exploitation has developed over many years, which describes children being ‘at risk’ despite clear evidence of actual harm having occurred. Examples include children having contracted sexually transmitted diseases, children regularly going missing with adults who picked them up in cars late at night and children attending so-called ‘house parties’ organised by adults, where they are plied with alcohol and drugs before being sexually abused.

None of the areas examined in this investigation kept data on the ethnicity of victims and alleged perpetrators. The report highlights that this makes it impossible to know whether any particular ethnic group is over‐represented as perpetrators of child sexual exploitation by networks. The report recommends that police forces and local authorities in England and Wales must collect specific data – disaggregated by sex, ethnicity and disability – on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation, including by networks.

The report emphasises that too many victims of child exploitation are treated as offenders or somehow responsible for the harms done to them, whilst the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation are often not investigated or prosecuted. More effort must be made to prosecute perpetrators effectively; the law should recognise the gravity of this particular form of abuse and its impact on children. 

This report makes six recommendations, including:

  • The strengthening of the criminal justice system’s response by amending legislation to provide a mandatory aggravating factor in sentencing those convicted of offences relating to the sexual exploitation of children.

  • The Department for Education and the Welsh Government should update guidance on child sexual exploitation. This should include the identification and response to child sexual exploitation perpetrated by networks and improve the categorisation of risk and harm by local authorities and other institutions. 

  • Police forces and local authorities in England and Wales must collect specific data – including sex, ethnicity and disability – on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation, including by networks.

Chair to the Inquiry Professor Alexis Jay said:

“The sexual exploitation of children by networks is not a rare phenomenon confined to a small number of areas with high-profile criminal cases. It is a crime which involves the sexual abuse of children in the most degrading and destructive ways, by multiple perpetrators. 

“We found extensive failures by local authorities and police forces in the ways in which they tackled this sexual abuse. There appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was on the wane, however it has become even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated when only linked to other forms of criminal behaviour such as county lines. 

“We make six recommendations which when implemented, we hope will address more effectively child sexual exploitation by organised networks.”

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