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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


Executive Summary

In this investigation, the Inquiry considered the sexual exploitation of children by organised networks. Department for Education guidance recognises that child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It is said to occur “where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator”.[1]

A ‘network’ was defined for the purposes of this investigation as “two or more individuals (whether identified or not) who are known to (or associated with) one another”. Offender networks are often loosely interconnected rather than formally organised and older children or teenagers may also be involved in grooming victims.

The sexual exploitation of children by networks is not a rare problem 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. The Inquiry therefore chose to base this investigation on areas which had not already been the subject of independent investigation (such as Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford). The intention was to obtain an accurate picture of current practice at a strategic level and through examination of individual cases, as well as drawing on wider knowledge about child sexual exploitation in England and Wales.

Six case study areas were chosen: Durham, Swansea, Warwickshire, St Helens, Tower Hamlets and Bristol. Eight themes were examined in each area:

  • problem profiling and disruption of child sexual exploitation;
  • empathy and concern for child victims;
  • risk assessment, protection from harm and outcomes for children;
  • missing children, return home interviews and children in care;
  • male victims;
  • children with disabilities;
  • partnership working; and
  • audit, review and performance improvement.

In addition, the Inquiry undertook a detailed analysis of material held by the relevant local authority and police force in relation to 33 children from the six case study areas, in order to better understand the experiences of children who were currently being (or very recently had been) sexually exploited by networks.

The experiences of victims and survivors

As set out in the report, the Inquiry heard many distressing accounts of children who had been sexually exploited and abused. For example:

  • CS-A371 was taken into foster care when she was 10 years old, supplied with drugs at age 11 and was self-harming by 12. Adult men took her to flats and sexually exploited her. Police became involved when she was 17 and several prosecutions followed. She describes being demeaned by defence barristers in court who accused her of being racist and “a slag[2] and said repeatedly that she had wanted sex with the perpetrators and had lied about her age.
  • At 12 years old, Greg was groomed by a 26-year-old man who initially told him he was 18. The first contact was online but soon afterwards Greg met the man in person. This man established a closeness with him, then introduced Greg to other adult males who subsequently ordered him to go to various places and have sex with other men. Greg said the abuse he experienced became more severe and sadistic, as he was put in increasingly dangerous situations.
  • CS-A373 told us that she experienced domestic violence as a young child and felt rejected at home. She repeatedly went missing from home but was found by the police and returned to her mother. When she was 12, an adult in the group she was associating with gave her cannabis, forced her to perform oral sex and raped her. At the age of 13, she was hospitalised after being given drugs by a local man, then placed in care outside her local area. At the age of 15, she met another adult male who gave her alcohol and cannabis before raping her. She reported this to the police and he was given a caution for having sex with a child under 16. She received no support or counselling and took an overdose. She repeatedly went missing and was returned home without any enquiry about why she was running away. She felt neither police nor social services properly assessed the risks she faced.
  • 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. By the time she was 13, her home life was increasingly violent and chaotic. She told us her father threatened to ‘prostitute’ her and she started running away from home. Her case was closed by children’s social care on several occasions, which her records showed was because staff thought she was “putting herself at risk”.[3] CS-A372 described being forced to perform oral sex on more than 20 adult men at the age of 14. This was also filmed. A number of men were charged but the charges were later dropped. She told us 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.

The understanding of the scale of child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation has been a designated strategic policing priority since 2015, giving it the same significance as terrorism and serious organised crime. Despite this, the Inquiry’s findings indicate that less is now known and understood about the prevalence of this appalling crime than was the case prior to 2015.

An accurate picture of the prevalence of child sexual exploitation could not be gleaned from either criminal justice or children’s social care data. This has arisen in part because of changes in the recording and tracking systems of police and local authorities, which are used to identify and count specific incidents of child sexual exploitation. Now many areas subsume the data within wider categories, such as child criminal exploitation or child abuse more generally.

The child criminal exploitation model covers all aspects of child exploitation, such as trafficking or county lines, including those which are particularly related to drug offending. The rationale for adoption of this model appears to be that it discourages a ‘silo’ mentality in relation to all aspects of child exploitation. This comes at the cost of making child sexual exploitation even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated. More significantly, there appears to be a flawed assumption that this form of child sexual abuse is on the wane. There is also a suspicion that some do not wish to be labelled as ‘another Rochdale or Rotherham’.

In keeping with the wider picture described above, the Inquiry did not receive a reliable picture of child sexual exploitation from the six case study areas that provided data. The data presented were confused and confusing. There were inconsistencies in each case study area, with unexplained trends and in some cases large, unexplained variations in the figures. The data indicated that cases of child sexual exploitation were falling in two case study areas. Reductions in exploitation may in part be related to changes in local recording practices.

It is hard to reconcile the idea that child sexual exploitation by networks is now less prevalent with the widely reported ‘explosion’ in online child sexual abuse, including exploitation. As the Inquiry has heard in other investigations, some of the worst examples include where children – including babies and infants – are live streamed for money, sometimes being sexually abused at the direction of the paying perpetrator. It is more important than ever that the relevant agencies in every area should have a specific focus on what is known about child sexual exploitation, distinct from child criminal exploitation, whether or not the agencies adopt the child criminal exploitation model.

There were significant difficulties in this investigation in identifying networks or groups of abusers. The case study material showed that there were cases of child sexual exploitation by networks in all six case study areas but the police forces in these areas were generally not able to provide any evidence about these networks, using either the Inquiry’s definition or any other. The Inquiry was particularly struck by the reporting that there were no known or reported organised networks in two of the case study areas. In relation to Swansea, we were told that there were “no data” to suggest that there was sexual exploitation by networks or gang-related child sexual abuse in the area.[4] However, there were examples of child sexual exploitation by groups in the evidence seen by the Inquiry which should have been identified by the police. South Wales Police acknowledged “there is a likelihood that there are organised criminal networks that we haven’t discovered”.[5] The local authority in Tower Hamlets also informed the Inquiry it had not identified any cases of sexual exploitation by networks, applying the definition of an organised criminal group, but then acknowledged that “just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean to say it’s not there”.[6]

The Inquiry has proposed improvements to this unsatisfactory position. Any denial of the scale of child sexual exploitation – either at national level or locally in England and Wales – must be challenged.

Definitions, terminology and access to services

There has been much academic and professional debate about definitions of child sexual exploitation, including the concept of ‘exchange’ and whether it is necessary to be present in an individual case of sexual abuse in order for it to meet the criteria for child sexual exploitation. ‘Exchange’ involves the child receiving something that they need or want, which might suggest that children have a choice about their own exploitation. Others consider it helpful in recognising the manipulation of children into sexual exploitation by an abuser, but it may be inapplicable or inappropriate in the experience of some sexually exploited children. It should not be used as a key criterion to determine whether or not a child has been sexually exploited, with the potentially devastating consequences that might have for the type of support the child is given.

It is a unique feature of child sexual exploitation by networks that children are coerced, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity with multiple abusers. The Inquiry considers the idea of ‘exchange’ to be an unhelpful distraction and does not see it as a central issue. Instead, the overriding imperative ought to be to identify all children who are harmed by sexual exploitation or at heightened vulnerability to it, to act decisively to protect them and to bring offenders to justice.

A further concern is that a distinctive 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 of this 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 were plied with alcohol and drugs before being sexually abused.

The Inquiry received evidence of children in all of these categories who were habitually described as being ‘at risk’ of child sexual exploitation and in some cases were not given the support they needed because they were not categorised as already having experienced sexual exploitation. These were significant deficiencies in the overall approach to identifying, assessing and managing risk in some case study areas.

Another aspect of the same problem was illustrated in Durham, concerning the thresholds applied for children to receive various forms of services and support. The Inquiry was told that a child would not be placed in the category of high risk requiring multi-agency intervention if the perpetrator was unknown.

Failure to recognise the nature of risk and harm has widespread consequences for sexually exploited children. Over time, it downgrades the importance and seriousness of these cases in the minds of those responsible for protecting children and minimises the opportunities to investigate, disrupt and prosecute offenders. Despite receiving a welcome higher profile in recent years, some of the processes in place to identify and deal with child sexual exploitation have created an institutional hesitancy to intervene and take the necessary action to protect children and catch perpetrators.

Heightened risk and vulnerability

Research has identified two clear indicators of heightened vulnerability to child sexual exploitation. These are being in residential care and the presence of a disability. There are likely to be many more.

There is a national shortage of suitable residential care placements for children who are at risk of or have experienced child sexual exploitation.

In the case study areas, we saw evidence of victims placed in unsuitable local or out-of-area placements or experiencing a delay in identifying an appropriate placement. Pre and post placement supports were poor in some cases, with a lack of communication between relevant agencies, especially in distant placements.

Poor selection of these placements can result in escalating harm, including to the existing children in a distant care home. It is also widely recognised that in these circumstances children may also be groomed by perpetrators who have followed them to a distant placement to continue to exploit them or to engage them in county lines crimes. Children in the new area may be exploited by perpetrators, as they are vulnerable and without support networks.

Children with disabilities may be socially isolated, have a lack of accessible information and may find it harder to disclose abuse. Perpetrators may deliberately target disabled children who in some instances would have no means of communication and might also lack the language to describe abuse. These children should be seen as potential ‘captive victims’ who need skilled and well-trained intervention.

Disability featured prominently in more than one-third of the children’s cases examined by the Inquiry. The impact of disability in raising the risk of sexual exploitation was not well understood within the main agencies and children with learning disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism were not appropriately protected in some of the case study areas. Some councils gave evidence that, as a result of the Inquiry’s questions on this matter, the issue was receiving the attention it deserved.

Going missing from home and school is a recognised feature of child sexual exploitation. This was part of the lives of almost all 33 sexually exploited children in the case study areas that the Inquiry considered, including children looked after away from home. In every case, the police response needs to be timeous and thorough to locate the missing child as soon as possible. Sensitive return home interviews should establish where the child has been, who they were with and what they were doing. From the case study evidence, these inquiries were often inadequate.

Efforts have been made to improve the identification of male victims of sexual exploitation. Social media and dating apps were regularly used by perpetrators to groom boys and young men. In some areas more tailored services were available for children from ethnic minority groups and LGBTQ+ children who experienced sexual exploitation.

Policing and the criminal justice system

Police forces have created problem profiles in order to develop comprehensive responses to child sexual exploitation. Despite support for these profiles by the Children’s Commissioner and the Home Affairs Committee as long ago as 2013, the quality of these profiles in the case study areas was very mixed. Several profiles contained incomplete evidence about the prevalence of child sexual exploitation, there was often a lack of information about perpetrator groups and some were based on inadequate data.

None of the areas examined kept data on the ethnicity of victims and alleged perpetrators. The inclusion of ethnicity in problem profiles would enhance the effectiveness of prevention and detection by the police. Likewise, the local authorities and others would not automatically tailor their services to all victims in a culturally sensitive way. Many of the high-profile child sexual exploitation prosecutions have involved groups of men from minority ethnic communities. This has led to polarised debate about whether there is any link between ethnicity and child sexual exploitation networks. Poor or non-existent data collection makes it impossible to know whether any particular ethnic group is over-represented as perpetrators of child sexual exploitation by networks.

When child sexual exploitation has been identified, the police and local authorities may use a range of tactics to interrupt or disrupt the activities. Disruption techniques include child abduction warning notices (CAWNs), sexual risk orders (SROs) and sexual harm prevention orders (SHPOs). CAWNs were most often used in the case study areas; there is a risk that they could be deployed as an alternative to full-scale investigation. The application of other disruption techniques was less evident. The notable exception was Bristol, which had created a specific multi-disciplinary team to deal with disruption.

Inspection, audit and review

Themed inspections of the police, children’s social care and health took place in 2015 and 2016, and in 2019 in the case of the police. These all identified areas for improvement but the focus in joint inspections has shifted to wider issues of criminal exploitation and child neglect. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) child protection inspections have maintained a focus on child sexual exploitation but recent Ofsted inspection reports from the case study areas are not specific about child sexual exploitation. HMICFRS has consistently reported the need for significant improvements.

A number of institutions indicated that being selected as a case study area had generated improvement activity in relation to child sexual exploitation and in some cases this had led to significant service developments. While welcome, this raises questions about the effectiveness of internal performance and quality systems, as well as scrutiny by the inspectorates.


We recommend the strengthening of the response of the criminal justice system by the government amending the Sentencing Act 2020 to provide a mandatory aggravating factor in sentencing those convicted of offences relating to the sexual exploitation of children.

The government should publish an enhanced version of its Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit as soon as possible. We recommend that 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 or groups and improve the categorisation of risk and harm by local authorities and other institutions. The toolkit and guidance should specify that the core element of the definition of child sexual exploitation is that a child was controlled, coerced, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity.

We recommend that the Department for Education should, without delay, ban the placement in semi-independent and independent settings of children aged 16 and 17 who have experienced, or are at heightened risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation.

We recommend 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.

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