Blurred Boundaries

Blurred boundaries: child exploitation, safeguarding and the criminal justice system

Published: 18/12/2020

Author: Alice Yeo

The third article* being published today focuses on the challenges of responding to child exploitation, from interviews with Tony Saggers, (Threat, Risk and Harm Consultant); Dr Tim Bateman (Reader in Youth Justice, University of Bedfordshire) and Dr Craig Barlow (Independent Forensic Social Work and Criminologist).

The interviews raised difficult questions about how to respond appropriately when a child who has been exploited breaks the law: should they be safeguarded by children’s social services, dealt with by the youth justice system, or both? Whose rights should be upheld? Can a young person be considered to have choice and agency in situations where they are being exploited? Perhaps not surprisingly given the complexity of these issues, the discussion reflects that there are no simple answers, and not everyone in the sector will agree.

It is important to recognise that many young people who have been sexually or criminally exploited may have both been victimised themselves whilst also victimising others. This raises questions about whether these young people should be immune from prosecution and how to balance this with victims’ rights to justice. The following example from Tony Saggers highlighted these challenges:

‘If you are the parent of the 14 year old being exploited by the 16 year old, how do you expect to get justice for what happened to your child if the 16 year old is a victim of a 19 year old and because of that they are deemed entirely a victim of exploitation themselves?’

It can be argued that when young people are in these situations, both a safeguarding and an enforcement response is required. However, the way the current system is structured, with social services and criminal justice as separate organisations, makes this practically difficult and often results in a binary either/or response. Examples were given of how this approach can result in gaps and anomalies in the system in relation to young people at risk of or being exploited, such as:

  • A young person being de-allocated from the ‘Children in Need’ safeguarding category when accepted by a Youth Offending Service (YOS).
  • Young people involved in criminal exploitation being dealt with by the criminal justice system and landing straight back in a situation of exploitation if acquitted or charges were dropped without any safeguarding actions being put in place.
  • Inadequate use being made of the potential protection afforded by both the National Referral Mechanism and the Modern Slavery Act.

Alternative ‘systems’ were highlighted: Scotland does not have a separate youth justice system, anyone under the age of 16 is referred to Children’s Services; Hackney and Surrey have dismantled their Youth Offending Service (YOS) in favour of an integrated adolescent service. Taking a pragmatic approach, working incrementally within the current system, with a focus on better partnership working between Children’s Services and youth justice, was also pointed out as being an important way to avoid the risk of children slipping through the cracks. Through our focus on service expansion and integration this year, the Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme will revisit these complex issues during our ongoing work with local areas and share our learning.

*Please also see the first article on the use of data in relation to child exploitation and the second on why an understanding of adolescent brain development can help practitioners working with young people at risk of or with experience of child exploitation.

Alice Yeo

Alice Yeo

Alice Yeo is the Head of Evidence for the Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme and works at the University of Bedfordshire.

Learning To Support Strategic Leaders In Tackling Child Exploitation

Learning to support strategic leaders in tackling child exploitation

A new open access online resource supports cross-sector leaders achieve system change in tackling child exploitation.
View the tackling child exploitation resources