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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


L.1: Conclusions

1. Children are sexually exploited by networks in all parts of England and Wales in the most degrading and destructive ways. Each of these acts is a crime. This investigation has revealed extensive failures by local authorities and police forces to keep pace with the pernicious and changing problem of the sexual exploitation of children by networks.

The nature and scale of child sexual exploitation by networks

2. Many exploited children are raped or sexually assaulted repeatedly, over months or years.

3. Parental neglect, substance misuse, domestic violence or mental health issues may increase the vulnerability of children to sexual exploitation. Around half of the case study children were in care and more than a third had complex disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders.

4. It is widely recognised that alcohol, drugs and actual or threatened violence against the child, their friends and family are often used as a means to groom and coerce children. Perpetrators are finding new ways, including through mobile phones and other devices, social media and dating apps, to groom and abuse ever younger children.

5. Research suggested that many complainants report dissatisfaction with the responses of local authority staff and police officers to the sexual exploitation they faced and these themes were reflected in some of the experiences of the case study children. Some felt unprotected by care home staff failing to intervene when they knew or suspected that the children were being sexually exploited. Others were frustrated that those who had sexually exploited them were not held accountable through the criminal justice system.

6. As there is no specific criminal offence of child sexual exploitation that can be recorded and measured, police forces ‘flag’ criminal offences which fit the definition of child sexual exploitation. The application of this definition is a subjective and variable exercise.

7. Children’s social care data on the number of reported cases of children identified as at risk of child sexual exploitation varies, amongst other things, according to local recording practices and the pattern or level of service.

8. The data provided by the six case study areas were inconsistent and showed some unexplained variations and trends in the figures. They do not give a reliable picture of child sexual exploitation in these areas. In particular, data from two areas indicating a reduction in child sexual exploitation are highly unlikely to provide an accurate reflection of prevalence.

9. Some of the high-profile child sexual exploitation prosecutions have involved groups of South Asian males. There has been heated and often polarised debate about whether there is any link between ethnicity and group-based child sexual exploitation. Poor data collection on the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims fuels that debate and makes it difficult to identify whether there is any such link. It also hampers the ability of police and other services to provide culturally sensitive responses, interventions and support.

Defining child sexual exploitation by networks

10. The unique feature of child sexual exploitation is that children are coerced, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity. The issue of exchange is an unhelpful distraction. Exchange may be present in some cases of child sexual exploitation but not others. The current statutory definition in England, which provides that, in the absence of exchange, an element of financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator is necessary, is too restrictive. Child sexual exploitation can occur without these elements.

11. Police and children’s social care should regularly review their understanding and practices in order to address the changing nature of child sexual exploitation, including the substantial increase in the use of online activity to groom children.

12. There were repeated examples across the case study areas of children being described as at high, medium or low risk of sexual exploitation, when in fact they had already experienced or were likely to be experiencing actual harm.

13. The networks or groups of perpetrators who sexually exploit children vary in nature. They might be a number of adults well known to each other ‘passing’ children between them or people with only loose associations. They might also be adults who do not sexually abuse children themselves but who use the children as a commodity for their own gain – financial or otherwise.

14. It is clear from the case study material that there were cases of child sexual exploitation by networks in all six case study areas but police forces were generally unable to provide evidence about the extent of sexual exploitation by networks using the Inquiry’s definition, or indeed any other. Two of the areas (Swansea and Tower Hamlets) reported that there were no known or reported organised networks in their areas.

15. In order to protect children who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited, police and social services should apply a broad understanding of networks, as used by this Inquiry. The focus should be on children who are being sexually exploited by multiple perpetrators, regardless of their activities and associations.

16. Recent trends involving recording instances of child sexual exploitation within wider criminal exploitation or child abuse data sets make establishing the prevalence of child sexual exploitation even more complex. There has been a widespread adoption of the model of considering sexual exploitation as part of child criminal exploitation and county lines activities. If this is maintained, agencies must have a distinctive and separate focus on child sexual exploitation in order that these offences are properly identified and investigated as well as to reflect the nature of the harm experienced by sexually exploited children.

Meeting the needs of particular groups of sexually exploited children

17. Children in residential care are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Several of the case study children had been exposed to sexual exploitation by networks while in care. Out-of-area placements continue to raise concerns and, in some cases, add to the risks to children. The use of unregulated accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds who have been sexually exploited or are at heightened risk of child sexual exploitation must cease.

18. The sexual exploitation experiences of boys and young men are less understood and often overlooked. The use of social media and dating apps was particularly prevalent in respect of the boys and young men among the case study children. Often they were using such platforms to explore their sexual orientation and then were exposed to perpetrators. Ways should be found to identify and provide targeted and appropriate support to the male victims of sexual exploitation, while maintaining and improving services for girls and other groups.

19. Children with disabilities are at heightened risk of sexual exploitation. Of the children included in the Inquiry’s sample of individual children’s experiences across the six areas (the case study children), one third had a disability. In several examples, there was no or limited evidence that the agencies took into account the child’s disability in assessing the risk of sexual exploitation they faced, or the harm they had already experienced.

20. Responses to some children from ethnic minority backgrounds who had been sexually exploited were not culturally sensitive. The ability to provide culturally specific services was hampered by the repeated failure by police forces to record the ethnicity of victims of child sexual exploitation.

Recognising the child as the victim

21. There were several examples of child victims of sexual exploitation being charged with criminal offences and consequently incurring criminal records when the background to their offending was inextricably linked with their sexual exploitation. The treatment of children as criminals in these circumstances is all the more troubling given that, too often, the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation were not investigated or prosecuted. Police and prosecutors should carefully consider whether it is in the public interest to prosecute children in these situations.

22. Victim-blaming attitudes and behaviours obscure the seriousness of the crimes committed against children. There was evidence of children being described as consenting to sexual acts and several instances of victim-blaming language in the case files. The use of such language is often symptomatic of unacceptable underlying attitudes and must be challenged.

Risk assessment, protection from harm and outcomes for children

23. Child sexual exploitation assessments that score risk solely on a numerical basis should not be used. If numerical assessments are used, they must always be accompanied by a competent professional assessment which explores and records the harm a child has experienced and forms a holistic, professional judgement.

24. The approach to identifying, assessing and managing the risk of sexual exploitation was deficient in several of the case study areas. Risk assessments often described children as being at high or medium ‘risk’ of sexual exploitation when in fact they had already been harmed and needed immediate intervention. The merging of risk and harm was apparent in the evidence concerning the case study children.

25. The assessment tool prepared by the National Working Group (NWG) Exploitation Response Unit and used in Warwickshire, as well as the practitioner prompts in the All Wales Practice Guide, by contrast, illustrated holistic risk assessment practice.

26. While some sexually exploited young people received support, including specialist therapeutic services, some care leavers and older children aged 16 or 17 years did not receive adequate support.

Missing children and return home interviews

27. A recent investigative report by The Times suggested that, since 2018, an unknown number of children at risk of abuse, some as young as 11, had gone missing more than 55,000 times in Britain. Going missing from home and school was also a feature in the lives of almost all of the case study children in this investigation.

28. It is essential that the police response to an episode of a child going missing is timely. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS; before 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, HMIC) has found police responses to be poor, inadequate or requiring improvement in half of the case study areas. Some improvement has been noted in two of these areas but the police should locate missing children as soon as possible.

29. For return home interviews to achieve their purpose of discouraging future missing episodes and identifying potential perpetrators of abuse, it is crucial that they be carried out in a sensitive and timely way. The information sought should include where the child has been, who they were with and what they were doing. Performance was variable in the case study areas in terms of the proportion of return home interviews offered and taken up and was often inadequate, including for children placed out of area (albeit that some of these problems were caused by difficulties in information-sharing between the police and placing authorities).


30. Problem profiling involves the drawing together by the police of information about child sexual exploitation from different agencies into one place. As the Children’s Commissioner made clear in 2013, a profile should include data about how many children and young people have been sexually exploited, intelligence on places of concern, and information on gangs and other networks, groups and individuals who present a risk of sexual harm.

31. Despite this, none of the police forces in the case study areas had an accurate profile setting out a clear picture of the networks sexually exploiting children in their area. Profiles were often based on limited, inaccurate or incomplete data. Issues with the flagging process contributed to these problems. There were widespread failures to collect data about the ethnicity of perpetrators and victims in the case study areas.

32. As a result, none of the police forces or local authorities in the case study areas had an accurate understanding of the networks sexually exploiting children in their area.

33. The improved collection and use of data is critical to the response to child sexual exploitation if these offences are to be properly investigated and resourced.

Disruption, investigation and prosecution

34. There is evidence from academic research that the response of the criminal justice system to child sexual exploitation by networks is the most frequently identified source of dissatisfaction with institutional responses to child sexual exploitation.

35. A range of disruption tools are available but they are underused. The most commonly used tool was the child abduction warning notice but use across the case study areas varied and lacked consistency.

36. There were also several examples of perpetrators who had harmed children but had not been the subject of effective investigation or disruption. There was little evidence of early investigative advice being sought from the Crown Prosecution Service and several cases in which perpetrators were not prosecuted. The downgrading of harm to risk by agencies has widespread consequences. The importance and seriousness of these cases is reduced, minimising opportunities to investigate, disrupt and prosecute offenders. Despite a welcome higher profile in recent years, some of the processes 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.

37. The perpetrators of child sexual exploitation commit serious crimes and more effort must be made to prosecute them effectively. The law should recognise the gravity of this particular form of abuse and its impact on children.

Partnership working

38. Partnership working between the different agencies involved in protecting children from sexual exploitation requires more than attendance at multi-agency meetings. There were some strong examples of partnership work with third sector organisations. However, some of the individual children’s cases suggested partnership working could have been better.

Audit, review and performance

39. Published inspection reports should be sufficiently detailed. Unlike HMICFRS, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) does not report the number of child sexual exploitation or missing children cases it reviews. Recent Ofsted reports from the case study areas refer only in broad terms to child exploitation and lack sufficient focus on the issue.[1] Positive reports which do not contain a detailed evidence base mean that it is difficult to interrogate and compare their findings with those of other reports.

40. A number of institutions indicated that being selected as a case study area had generated improvement activity in relation to child sexual exploitation. This is to be welcomed but it also raises questions about the effectiveness of internal review, as well as scrutiny by the inspectorates.



  1. See, for example, the Durham report (September 2019, OFS012544) and the Tower Hamlets report (June 2019, LBT004243). There are brief mentions of child sexual exploitation in the Bristol report (September 2018, OFS012547). By contrast, the Warwickshire report (July 2017, OFS012549) has detailed findings on child sexual exploitation.
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