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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


I.2: Effectiveness of disruption tactics in the case study areas

4. Institutions in each of the six case study areas appeared to recognise the importance of proactively disrupting perpetrators of child sexual exploitation and those posing a risk to children, rather than simply responding to allegations. However, the individual children’s cases reviewed by the Inquiry often demonstrated that these tactics had not secured adequate protection for the children.

5. Generally, the use of SROs and SHPOs to disrupt child sexual exploitation appears to be low. This reflects the evidence the Inquiry heard in the second phase of its Children Outside the United Kingdom investigation.[1]

6. CAWNs were the most commonly used disruption mechanism in relation to child sexual exploitation but there is a risk that they will be used as an easier alternative to investigation and prosecution. Additionally, they are by nature limited to child abduction and therefore will not effectively address sexual exploitation taking place by other means, such as online exploitation.

7. Disruption tactics were sometimes used but were not well recorded. The 2020 inspection report on Durham Constabulary by HMICFRS noted that there was good use of CAWNs to protect children from perpetrators,[2] although they were not visible within Durham Constabulary’s police systems, making it difficult to search across systems to see whether they had been used.[3] In St Helens, Merseyside Police accepted that the information on the extent to which Merseyside Police had used each of the disruption tactics from the toolkit “was not easily available”.[4] Warwickshire Police also accepted that not all the disruption tactics used are formally recorded in a format that can identify which tactics have been used and when. A review is being completed on how disruption tactics can be better recorded so that the information is readily available and can help develop the response to child sexual exploitation.[5]

8. It is important that the use and effectiveness of disruption techniques can be audited easily. The data gathered should also be used to inform problem profiles that are created. In many of the areas considered by the Inquiry there was a lack of evaluation of the disruption strategy, perhaps because of the inability to access and analyse data on the techniques.

9. The ability of Durham Constabulary and other police forces to disrupt child sexual exploitation may have been adversely affected by the deficiencies in their problem profiling work. Durham Constabulary has a sexual behaviour analysis team which identifies individuals posing a risk to children and then produces a problem or target profile to disrupt that risk.[6] It also has a multi-agency disruption and intervention panel, used to disrupt organised crime groups suspected to be involved in child sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery.[7] However, it does not have organised crime groups mapped for sexual offending. This illustrates the difficulties caused by using the definition of organised crime groups in this context, rather than considering networks more widely. The 2020 HMICFRS inspection report on Durham Constabulary found limited evidence of disruption activity, hotspot locations patrolling or taskings in relation to known child sexual exploitation perpetrators.[8]

10. There was some evidence of Durham Constabulary issuing CAWNs to disrupt child sexual exploitation in relation to the case study children. CS-A29 was sexually exploited between the ages of 13 and 15. Two adult males (aged 19) were issued with CAWNs when the child went missing and was found to have spent the night with them.[9]

11. However, there are concerns about the disruption efforts in some of the other Durham cases.

12. CS-A114 had a pregnancy terminated when she was 13. She later disclosed to a police community support officer that she was 12 at the time she became pregnant and also disclosed the name of a 17-year-old male who was responsible for the pregnancy. The offence was wrongly recorded as “sexual intercourse with a female aged 13” and the police closed the case as ‘not resolved’ due to evidential difficulties.[10] The offence was not treated with the gravity it merited. It should have been investigated as an offence of rape against a child under 13 years. Some time later, the police made an arrest of another male for abduction in respect of CS-A114. The suspect had previously been issued with a CAWN and he was remanded in custody for a short time.[11]

13. CS-A50 was seen getting into cars with older men when aged 13. She also had social media contact with strangers and had been seen by her father climbing out of the window of someone else’s house whilst missing from home. Although her father was able to identify the address of the house and this was recorded in a child sexual exploitation assessment, there was no police investigation of whose cars she was getting into or who owned the house that she was seen leaving.[12] Later the same year, a strategy meeting heard that there were concerns that this child was being groomed by a male who lived near her. Responsibility to investigate this was left with children’s social care.[13] Durham Constabulary should have taken action to investigate these matters.

14. In Swansea, examples of successful disruption by South Wales Police included placing a child in police protection, disrupting a specific address on the premise of antisocial behaviour and encouraging inspections of a takeaway about which concerns were raised.[14] The City and County of Swansea Council has also requested a number of CAWNS, used passport markers, engaged with the National Referral Mechanism[15] and communicated with housing services where there are properties of concern.

15. There were also examples of proactive disruption activity in relation to CS-A56. This included encouraging her to submit a Clare’s Law application[16] and the use of CAWNs. The police also worked with housing authorities to restrict access to the premises which CS-A56 was using and collaborated with the regional organised crime unit in relation to county lines activity.[17]

16. However, there was also evidence of missed opportunities for disruption in particular cases in Swansea. An internal review conducted by South Wales Police in March 2020 identified a series of missed disruption opportunities in relation to alleged perpetrators. One was the subject of similar allegations in the past (regarding sexual exploitation of young people doing work experience with him) but was never spoken to formally, with the case being closed with no rationale given. No child sexual exploitation ‘flag’ was placed on his record; no referral was made for him to be discussed as a ‘Potentially Dangerous Person’; and no application for an SRO was made even though “the frequency and similarities of the allegations would have made him a likely candidate” for such an order.[18] Other similar issues were identified in relation to other alleged perpetrators outside of Swansea but within the force area.[19] In light of his experience in collating evidence for the Inquiry, Detective Chief Superintendent Daniel Richards confirmed that South Wales Police would carry out a similar review of all individuals identified as actual or potential perpetrators of child sexual exploitation, to assess the management of the risk they pose and how that is being managed, on an annual basis.[20]

17. Warwickshire Police issued 15 CAWNs in 2018/19 and has used disruption tactics on licensed premises, including issuing hotel notices against five different hotels in the last two years.[21]

18. However, it accepted that it had been too slow in using CAWNs in 2017 in relation to the sexual exploitation of CS-A1. The child’s mother (CS-A2) was also given conflicting information by police about when a CAWN was considered to have been breached. The police also accepted missed opportunities to use other options such as recovery orders when CS-A1 was aged 14 and particularly spending time with one older male. CS-A2 described the disruption tactics used as causing just a “small dent” in her daughter’s abuse.[22] This child was frequently missing whilst at high risk of child sexual exploitation.

19. Warwickshire Police conducted an investigation into males who were suspected of having sexually exploited CS-A300. It reported that delays in the examination of the suspects’ phones were likely to slow down the investigation. The child’s carer reported incidents that suggested the child was being stalked and that the child was very embarrassed about being asked the details of sexual assaults by a female police officer. It is unclear what action, if any, the police took in relation to the stalking allegations.[23]

20. In St Helens, the 2018 inspection of Merseyside Police by HMICFRS identified “the limited use” of CAWNs as a tactic for disruption and prevention.[24] Improvement has been slow since then. An internal review showed that from 253 episodes of children going missing between October and December 2019, only two CAWNs had been issued. Merseyside Police accepted that there were “a very limited number of CAWNs issued” and that there had been “missed opportunities” in the use of CAWNs as a disruption mechanism.[25] Merseyside Police appears to have made relatively little use of civil orders. In the two-year period ending September 2019, it applied for only three SROs and one SHPO.[26]

21. Although missing coordinators should regularly look for opportunities to issue a CAWN if a child is found with an adult, an internal review in St Helens has revealed that Merseyside Police officers “were not probing children enough on where they had been and with whom” when found after an episode of going missing.[27]

22. CS-A212 and CS-A71 were sexually exploited outside the St Helens area, across police force boundaries. Merseyside Police did share information to assist another force to disrupt perpetrators but that other force issued CAWNs to the abusers of CS-A212 rather than taking substantive action and the case being taken to the Crown Prosecution Service.[28]

23. There were numerous failures to investigate the possible sexual exploitation of CS-A26 in St Helens, including when aged 11 she was found drunk in a park with older males, when an older male took her to a holiday park for several nights and when the police found CS-A26 (aged 13) in bed with an older male and another male hiding under the bed. The following year, it was discussed in a multi-agency meeting that CS-A26 was having sex with a named 17-year-old. Despite the known child sexual exploitation risk, the male was not interviewed until at least seven months later and ultimately no further action was taken because he denied the offence. Merseyside Police acknowledged that the police and partnership response should have been more considered and rigorous in relation to the males that this child was found with.[29]

24. The Children’s Society (which provides a commissioned service to support missing and looked after children and children with disabilities in Tower Hamlets) was critical of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ practice with respect to disruption. Its view was that:

  • disruption strategies were often not shared with the Children’s Society;
  • little was being done on disruption apart from within the hotel industry;
  • the use of intelligence-reporting across services was low, which prevented early disruption measures being utilised; and
  • there was a training need within the local authority to ensure more proactivity around disruption and intelligence at the early stage of a case.[30]

25. In recent years the Metropolitan Police Service has used CAWNs against young victims to stop them associating with one another.[31] Disruption tactics should be primarily aimed at perpetrators and locations where it is occurring. Restrictive measures such as CAWNs may be appropriate to use against younger perpetrators but they should not be used against young and vulnerable victims of sexual exploitation.

26. CS-A81 was a Tower Hamlets child. Two males were arrested and issued with CAWNs. The Metropolitan Police Service was planning the use of CAWNs against the child when she was 13 years old, with threats of arrest to stop her from associating with her peer group.[32] This was challenged by children’s social care, which was concerned that a CAWN would criminalise CS-A81.[33]

27. CS-A21 had been sexually exploited at the age of 15, when she disclosed that she was attending parties with adult males where she was supplied with alcohol and drugs and expected to take part in sexual acts. She described these as “uck parties”. The Metropolitan Police Service response was weak. The child was not spoken to by officers for five weeks after the case was opened. The police also told a multi-agency meeting that the parties the child was attending where there were older men, alcohol and drugs were not “uck parties” and by implication no threat to her when the evidence suggested otherwise. Commander Williams could not explain the rationale for that decision.[34]

28. CS-A90 was a frequent missing child in Tower Hamlets and was attending parties in hotels when he was only 13 years old. At the age of 14 there were concerns about exploitation but Metropolitan Police Service officers decided that this was not a child sexual exploitation case, based solely on a telephone call with children’s social care. The police did not speak to the child or any of his family about the concerns; no trigger plan for the episodes of the child going missing was developed; a mapping exercise of the child’s friendship group was agreed but did not take place; and there was no direct disruption of the hotel. A case audit later found that the Metropolitan Police Service should have fully considered the potential for child sexual exploitation.[35]

29. Disruption practice in Bristol was more progressive. In 2016, a Serious Case Review into Operation Brooke identified that focus had been primarily placed on trying to stop victims from having involvement with perpetrators, and that there had been a lack of focus on the prevention of abuse and the disruption and prosecution of perpetrators.[36] As a result, over the following two years, Avon and Somerset Police developed a specific team called Operation Topaz to focus on disruption of perpetrators. Avon and Somerset Police has used a range of direct disruption tactics such as CAWNs, child sexual exploitation warning letters, SROs and SHPOs, as well as arresting suspects for other offences such as theft, robbery or drug-related offences. It has used indirect disruption tactics less frequently but provided two recent examples, including the targeting of a person hiring out vehicles to child sexual exploitation suspects. The force’s location-specific disruption activities have included working with housing officers to evict suspects from an illegal sub-tenancy and a two-week operation at a park in Bristol.[37]

30. Disruption activities and prosecutions undertaken by Operation Topaz are often done without disclosures from, or support of, child victims.[38] This meets one of the key difficulties in responding to child sexual exploitation which we have seen on a national level, namely the considerable barriers to disclosure of exploitation by children.

31. Avon and Somerset Police’s 2019 problem profile concluded that:

Positive use of risk assessments to proactively identify suspects for disruption has enabled Topaz to considerably increase engagement with young people and improved overall detection rates (although this will not always be directly for CSE [child sexual exploitation] offences)”.[39]

32. A deep dive audit in February 2020 found that disruption opportunities were taken in a timely manner, which enabled safeguarding of children and the prevention of future offences.[40] In 2019, disruption in Bristol led to 13 arrests, with 5 suspects charged with a total of 14 offences and 10 convictions for offences connected to child sexual exploitation.[41] In June 2020, Operation Topaz had a cohort of 160 suspects who had been assessed and were being managed through a range of disruption tactics.[42]

33. In the case of CS-A59 in Bristol, there was disruption activity in response to evidence of the child being targeted by older males via social media apps and concerns that the supported accommodation where it was proposed he should be placed was being targeted by unsafe adults.[43] A CAWN was issued but did not prevent the exploitation continuing. This was a complex case and a police engagement officer worked alongside Barnardo’s and children’s social care while disruption officers took action against the perpetrators. One of the main perpetrators of the sexual exploitation of CS-A59 was arrested and subsequently convicted for knowingly inducing a child to run away or stay away from care.[44] This is a good example of the use of the power to prosecute offences of abducting children from care under section 49 of the Children Act 1989. Other police forces could be more proactive in taking such action.


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