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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


C.3: Defining networks

20. The networks or groups of adults who sexually exploit children vary. They might be a number of adults actively working together and ‘passing’ children between them, or people with only loose associations (for example being from the same communities or through links they establish such as on social media). They might also be criminals who do not sexually abuse children themselves but who use the children as a commodity for their own gain, financial or otherwise.

21. During its work to set the scope of this investigation, the Inquiry identified that there was no specific definition of ‘organised networks’ in the law, guidance or practice relating to child sexual exploitation. The Inquiry considered that such a definition was necessary for conducting the investigation and therefore adopted its own working definition in 2019:

An organised network is characterised by two or more individuals (whether identified or not) who are known to (or associated with) one another and are known to be involved in or to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children. Being involved in the sexual exploitation of children includes introducing them to other individuals for the purpose of exploitation, trafficking a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation, taking payment for sexual activities with a child or allowing their property to be used for sexual activities with a child.”[1]

22. The breadth of this definition enabled the Inquiry to consider as many different permutations of this form of abuse as possible and to see any problems with identification of child sexual exploitation by networks by police forces and local authorities. In practice, this investigation focussed on cases of child sexual exploitation by two or more individuals who were known to or associated with one another, regardless of the extent to which they were ‘organised’.

23. The Inquiry’s definition is very similar to that used in the Home Office’s December 2020 paper, which defined group-based child sexual offending in the community as “a form of child sexual abuse characterised by multiple offenders with connections to one another grooming and sexually exploiting children”.[2] That report also found that there was no common structure to offender networks. It noted that:

  • offender networks are often loosely interconnected and based around existing social connections (which means they are often broadly homogenous in age, ethnic background and socio-economic status); and
  • networks of offenders vary considerably in size, from two to tens of offenders, which pose significant investigative challenges for the police.[3]

24. The Inquiry’s review of individual cases supported the varied nature of group-based offending. Examples of networks in this investigation included:

  • adults supplying children with alcohol and drugs as part of the grooming process;[4]
  • adults arranging events to supply children with alcohol or drugs in return for sexual activity;[5]
  • groups of men taking children to hotels and leisure venues;[6]
  • men from the same place of business exploiting a child;[7]
  • registered sex offenders associating with others in sexually exploiting children;[8] and
  • the grooming or involvement of family members as the means by which offenders outside the family gain access to sexually abuse a child.[9]

This illustrative range of different types highlights that the key focus must be on whether and how the group facilitates access to, and carries out, child sexual exploitation, not how they have come together.

25. It is clear from the case study material that there were cases of child sexual exploitation by networks in all six case study areas. Despite this, the police forces in these areas were generally not able to provide evidence about the extent of sexual exploitation by networks using the Inquiry’s definition or indeed any other. There was also some confusion from the police with the definition of organised crime groups (OCGs), as set out in Part H. This impedes the identification of the extent of child sexual exploitation by networks. As an example outside of the six case study areas, Humberside Police is recently reported by Sky News to have stated that there is no “organised criminality within Humberside Police ... for CSE”.[10] The article referred to school welfare reports from the area flagging warnings of child exploitation and accounts from women who allege abuse by a group of men operating in Hull. Other recent reporting suggests that 35 children in Hull have been “officially identified as being at high risk of child exploitation over the last five months” with 371 children reported as missing between July and November 2021.[11]

26. There were similar difficulties at a national level. The Home Office stated that:

Much of the official data does not allow us to distinguish [child sexual exploitation] offending by organised networks and flags that identify co-offending are not used consistently to allow sound analysis of multiple offender child sex offences”.[12]

When asked about whether any consideration was being given to a single definition of ‘networks’, Mr Christian Papaleontiou, Head of the Home Office’s Tackling Exploitation and Abuse Unit, accepted that the definitional issues were “very challenging” and indicated that the Home Office was trying to embed within local, regional and national structures an ability to discern between networks and looser group-based offending. It was working to understand what interventions were needed for different forms of offending.[13]

27. Barnardo’s case management recording systems also did not capture different offender models, so it was unable to identify how many children who had experienced sexual exploitation had been abused through networks.[14]

28. A focus on the sexual exploitation of children by networks requires a broad understanding of what networks are, such as the one used by the Inquiry. Professionals need to understand that this abuse may be undertaken by ‘organised’ groups – but also loose associations – in order to respond appropriately to all cases in which children are being sexually exploited by multiple perpetrators.[15] This should involve consideration of the importance of networking and other group processes and dynamics (which may overlap) in facilitating, spreading and sustaining sexual exploitation.


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