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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


B.2: Children’s experiences of sexual exploitation

3. We heard and read harrowing evidence of child sexual exploitation by networks, including direct evidence from several complainants, victims and survivors, who described their experiences between around 2003 and 2011. While the Inquiry did not hear directly from the 33 case study children, the local authority and police evidence relating to them provided an insight into their experiences, which were more recent, dating from around April 2018.

4. Many of the children had experienced parental neglect, substance misuse, domestic violence and family breakdown.

4.1. These themes were reflected in the evidence from CS-A12, CS-A371, CS-A372, CS-A373 and CS-A435, whose experiences are set out in the Pen portraits. They were also apparent in the experiences of the case study children.

4.2. CS-A24 had a reported family history of alcohol and domestic abuse, including her mother hitting her. In 2018, when aged 14, she was considered to be at high risk of sexual exploitation, having disclosed five or six “sexual partners” over the previous three years who were aged 11 to 16. She was also going missing frequently and was associating with a number of males who might place her at risk.[1]

4.3. CS-A25’s childhood involved family violence, alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. She was living between relatives’ homes while deemed to be at high risk of sexual exploitation. She was considered to be at risk of sexual exploitation between July and November 2018, having been reported missing on repeated occasions, associating with other girls at risk of sexual exploitation, and attending parties with older adults where drugs were supplied and taken. During this period, she reported harmful sexual behaviour by three boys which led to a police investigation. She was subsequently taken into care in 2019 but in October 2019 was still listed as being at risk of sexual exploitation.[2]

4.4. CS-A221 had previously been on the Child Protection Register because of domestic violence and parental alcohol misuse. In 2019, he was sexually exploited by a registered sex offender who befriended and groomed both the child and his family.[3]

4.5. CS-A26 was considered at high risk of exploitation in the home of one of her parents, who were separated, due to drug misuse and parties frequented by many adults, some of whom were misusing drugs.[4] She was placed in a residential home where she continued to go missing and there were ongoing concerns that she was being exploited.[5]

4.6. CS-A22 was reported to have a difficult background, with a history of violence in the family. She had multiple episodes of going missing and was taken into care in 2017 at the age of 13. The evidence demonstrates that she was the victim of sexual assaults from 2018 to 2019.[6]

5. CS-A12, CS-A317 and around half of the case study children had been in care.

5.1. Some were taken into care for reasons unconnected with child sexual exploitation and then became victims of sexual exploitation. CS-A77 was taken into care in 2015, when aged 14 or 15. When she was 17, covert policing tactics were used to identify people who were suspected to be exploiting her, as a result of which multiple people were arrested and issued with Child Abduction Warning Notices (CAWNs). In late 2018, an assessment considered CS-A77’s life was potentially at risk due to a range of factors, including sexual exploitation, unmanaged mental health problems and a risk of sexually transmitted disease.[7]

5.2. Others were taken into care or placed in out-of-area or specialist care leaver placements in an attempt to protect them from perpetrators and break the cycle of sexual exploitation. CS-A302 disclosed sexual exploitation by multiple males, involving several rapes and sexual assaults, including while in out-of-area placements. When she was 13, she was placed in a specialist residential placement out of area, which was intended to reduce her vulnerability to sexual exploitation and which appeared to result in positive outcomes.[8] CS-A56 was reportedly sexually exploited by organised criminal gangs in different parts of the country in 2018, aged 17, and was then placed in a specialist leaving care placement outside of Wales, where continuity of support could be provided. However, following her return to Swansea when aged 18, despite being given enhanced support, she was trafficked and sexually exploited.[9]

6. More than one-third of the case study children had complex disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders.

6.1. CS-A27 was a child in care in St Helens. He was first sexually exploited in 2013 when he was 13 years old and this continued until he was 18 years old.[10] He was diagnosed as having moderate learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He was accommodated in a special education residential placement from the age of 13.[11]

6.2. CS-A216, who was diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder, was reportedly moved around towns in her local area for the purpose of sexual exploitation and was supplied with alcohol, making her particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse in the period 2016 to 2018. She was permanently excluded from school before being referred to mental health services after a serious self-harming incident.[12]

6.3. CS-A300, who was diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder, was groomed and sexually exploited by adult males. A male had taken him to a flat where he had been sexually assaulted by two adult males. One of the alleged perpetrators was arrested but released pending investigation.[13]

7. Alcohol and/or drugs were used as a means to groom and coerce many of the children whose experiences are detailed in the Pen portraits. This theme was reflected in the evidence about the case study children. Parties attended by children and adults were a common way of supplying children with alcohol and drugs. Disclosures by children that they had been assaulted and raped at these events were not uncommon. These events were also a means of introducing them to a wider network of perpetrators. For example, CS-A19 attended parties between 2017 and 2018 where adults supplied children with drugs and alcohol and said that she had been raped at an associated address. One person was charged before the case was discontinued and then reinstated by the Crown Prosecution Service as part of a wider investigation.[14] When CS-A29 went missing from the children’s home in which she had been placed, she was supplied with drugs and alcohol. She was sexually exploited between the ages of 13 and 15 by a number of different older males.[15] On two occasions, at the age of 11 in 2015 and age 12 in 2016, CS-A26 was found intoxicated late at night in the company of adult males. She was also frequently missing from home.[16] CS-A21 had a large number of social media followers and there were concerns that she was being supplied with drugs and alcohol from a young age.[17] There were concerns that CS-A77 had been coerced into carrying large amounts of drugs inside her body.[18]

8. Mobile and other electronic devices were used in a number of ways.

8.1. CS-A372 described being forced to perform oral sex on more than 20 men and this being filmed.[19]

8.2. Several of the case study children were coerced into taking or sharing indecent images with mobile devices and photographed in intimate situations with adult abusers. Indecent images might then be used to blackmail or shame the child into further exploitation or criminal activity. When aged between 14 and 15, CS-A51 was coerced by another pupil to send indecent photos which had been circulated, and was groomed via social media.[20] The evidence suggests that she was groomed and sexually exploited between 2018 and 2019. When aged 15, CS-A220 was encouraged to send indecent images of herself to a 20-year-old male. The evidence suggests that she was sexually exploited at least from the age of 15 until after her 18th birthday, including a number of reported rapes.[21]

8.3. There were many examples of perpetrators making contact with children through online dating apps. CS-A71 was identified as having been groomed online in 2017. She was then sexually exploited by multiple perpetrators in different parts of the country, with a younger child in care, from 2018 to 2019.[22] Several male victims saw online dating apps as a way to explore their sexual orientation and were reluctant for the police to take further action. Online abuse which progressed to contact abuse was experienced by six of the eight male case study children. When aged 15, CS-A43 was sexually abused at the home of a male in his late 20s, who made contact with him via an online dating app, Grindr. Other adult males contacted him online and offered him payment in return for certain types of photographs, as well as offering him money for sex. The evidence suggests that he was sexually exploited over the course of four months in 2018 to 2019.[23] CS-A27 also met men on Grindr who sexually exploited him and went on to rape him at the age of 17.[24]

9. Violence and brutality were widespread. CS-A371 said her abusers would threaten her, saying that they would get friends to gang rape her, smash her windows and plant drugs in her house. She said that, on a number of occasions, she was raped, slapped, punched and kicked. She also described being verbally abused by the men, who would call her a “bitch” and a “fat slag”.[25] Among the case study children, CS-A22 was found in 2017 with injuries suggestive of serious sexual assault after a two-day episode of going missing. The local authority raised concerns with the police that she had been raped.[26] CS-A216 was reportedly trafficked to a neighbouring town for the purpose of sexual exploitation and threatened with a weapon in 2018.[27] The Inquiry also heard evidence of the threat of violence being directed at parents, with children being told that if they reported their abuse or failed to comply with the wishes of their abusers, they or their families would be harmed:

the threat of violence is always there, because often what parents hear back from their child and why the child can be so frightened is that they are told by their abuser, you know, ‘I will come and get – I will get your sister or go and get your mum’. So even if it may not actually happen, the threat that it may happen is terrifying in itself. I don’t think we actually see that much of abuse to the families in terms of setting fire to their house – we have had one example of that – I think it is more the threat rather than actually it occurring.[28]

Ms Vikki McKenna, senior service coordinator at Catch22 (which provides support services in St Helens), also told us that “we’ve seen an increase in violence towards parents of children who are being exploited”.[29]

10. Dissatisfaction with the police response to reports of exploitation featured in many of the complainant accounts and in some of the experiences of the case study children. It was reported in a child exploitation meeting that CS-A27 had lost all faith in the system because he felt there had been a failure to obtain convictions of two men who had raped him after they met on a dating app. CS-A27 had disclosed to his social worker, police and placement staff that he had been using an online app to meet men for sex.[30]

11. Several children were themselves charged with or convicted of criminal offences which were closely linked with their sexual exploitation. CS-A12 and ‘Daisy’ described this. Among the case study children, CS-A71 was arrested for arson, criminal damage and threatening behaviour to staff in her placement in 2019, although she had a diagnosis of ADHD and was being sexually exploited in different towns by multiple perpetrators.[31]

12. Dissatisfaction with the actions of staff in care homes and children’s social care departments was a further theme. CS-A12 said that care home staff knew that she and other children (aged 13 or 14) were going out with adult males and were being sexually exploited and given alcohol, drugs and other items but did not intervene.[32] CS-A372 described her case being closed by children’s social care more than once, despite their knowledge of risks she faced, for which she was partly blamed.[33]

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