To exploit means to use unfairly for your own advantage. The range of abuse is so wide and varied that it is hard to pin down a specific definition that can be agreed on by experts in the field, let alone those who have experienced it.
However, the one consistent factor that is always present is that the child does not know how to protect themself when someone bigger and stronger has power over them and uses it to illegally exploit them.
Child exploitation is a major child protection issue across the UK. It can often be hidden from view and go unnoticed as vulnerable young children are groomed and then abused, which can leave them scarred for life.
The abuse can involve a broad range of exploitative activity, from seemingly ‘consensual’ relationships with older boyfriends/girlfriends, informal exchanges of sex for attention, accommodation, gifts or cigarettes, through to very serious organised gang crime.
The exact figure of children that are exploited is unknown. However, in October 2011 Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, said that up to 10,000 children in England were being abused but feared the true figure could be much higher as she mounted a two year inquiry into the scale and the scope of the problem.
The children at risk of exploitation are some of the most vulnerable in society. Many have experienced abandonment or have suffered from physical and mental abuse. They need help but do not know where to look. Younger victims are being targeted more and more with Barnardo’s identifying children as young as 10 who have been subjected to sexual exploitation. Perpetrators of these crimes are becoming increasingly sophisticated; using the internet to protect their identity and trafficking children around the country to avoid detection.
What many parents, guardians, police, those in authority with children and others do not understand is that the fear, intimidation and loss of trust can be as harmful and hurtful as the actual act of sexual violation. All these emotional stressors cause confusion about roles, boundaries and sexual awareness.
A child or teenager that has been abused sexually will need patience, understanding, support and tools to deal with the trauma. They will need support and reassurance that it is was not their fault and that adults, and other children, should protect, not hurt them.
If, for whatever reason, they are not being protected within their own homes, they need to know that there are other supportive avenues of help available, such as Barnardo’s. School staff and other adults who have contact with children must be alert to the visual signs of a child at risk of being, or who is currently being, exploited.
Children need to be informed about and prepared for any eventuality of sexual exploitation without becoming scared of what they are being told. They must know that they will be supported in their efforts to act and speak out against being victimised.