At risk of sexual exploitation? - know the signs

troubled-looking girl

Photo: Deepjoy Tang

Parenting is all about letting your child enjoy increasing freedom in a safe manner. This becomes quite a challege in adolescence, as young people explore new relationships. It can be difficult at times to tell the difference between typical teenage behaviour and the warning signs that they may be getting involved in a relationship that is unsafe.  

Recent shocking cases in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere have revealed that large numbers of young people have been groomed - and that once they involved in that kind of relationship, it can be difficult for parents to extricate them.

 Knowing the signs to look for can help you prevent your child entering an unsafe relationship so you can intervene early if you need to and get the right help. 

Did you know?

  • Every year, thousands of children in the UK are forced or manipulated into sexual activity. This is child sexual exploitation.
  • This type of abuse can happen to boys and girls living at home in rural and town environments and from any social background.
  • Individuals or groups befriend, or ‘groom’, the child in a process designed to break down their existing relationships with family and friends, in order to establish control and power over them.
  • Grooming is like a process of recruitment and the victims are introduced into a lifestyle which they are made to believe is normal, but which is actually abusive.
  • It is unlikely that the child will be aware that they are being groomed by their ‘friends’ or ‘boyfriend’.  They may deny abuse and defend their new social group. 
  • Grooming can take place online or offline and can include both affection and violence, lies, blackmail, or threats.
  • There are different models of grooming – children might experience exploitation at parties, by groups of older men or (less often) women, as part of a gang, or even by friends their own age.
  • Once groomed, the child is expected to participate in sexual activities, often in exchange for something such as alcohol, gifts, money, affection, drugs, or a place to stay.

What are the signs my child might be in an unsafe, exploitative relationship?

  • Changes in behaviour, especially becoming secretive, defensive and/or aggressive.
  • Changes in their appearance, style of dress and tastes.
  • Receiving strange calls or messages on mobiles or social media sites from unknown contacts and not wanting to be separated from their mobile.
  • Having more than one mobile phone or social media account, such as two different Facebook profiles.
  • Being in possession of new, expensive items they normally couldn’t afford, such as mobile phones or jewellery.
  • No longer engaging with their usual friends and possibly associating with older men or women or new, friends who you have concerns about.
  • Staying out late or overnight with no explanation of where they are going.
  • Going missing from home or care.
  • Appearing with physical injuries.
  • Drug or alcohol misuse, self-harm.
  • Involvement in offending.
  • Sexual health problems.
  • Skipping school.
  • Evidence of sexual bullying or vulnerability through the internet or social media.
  • Adopting a new street language or answering to a new street name.
  • Often appearing unwell or tired and sleeping at unusual hours.
  • Deteriorating mental and/or emotional health.

How can you and your child stay safe?

It is important for parents to know that a child may have been told by the abuser not to talk to you about what they are doing. The child may believe they are in an exciting relationship, or may have been threatened with violence if they talk. It is unlikely that initially they will tell you what is happening to them. They may deny anything is wrong.

Here are some steps you can take to safeguard children from sexual exploitation:

  • Talk to your child openly and regularly about what makes a healthy relationship.
  • Keep up to date with technology and show an interest in what they do online.
  • Be alert to sudden changes in behaviour or appearance.
  • Be aware of who their friends are.
  • Be aware of any unexplained gifts or possessions.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about any concerns.
  • Talk to specialist charities for independent information and support both for your child and for yourself.  Pace, the NSPCC, or Parents Protect (Stop it Now) are some of the organisations that can help.
  • Record and report anything suspicious to the police.  Always inform the police if your child – be it a boy or a girl - is missing from home or school.  Clearly tell them you believe your child is at risk or is being sexually exploited and asked if they have a specialist child sexual exploitation team that you can be referred to.

If you feel something is not right, trust your instincts and seek help from your child’s school, social services or the police. Never put yourself or your child at greater risk by confronting the abuser yourself.

In an emergency or if a crime is ongoing always dial 999.

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