Child criminal exploitation

The Home Office defines child criminal exploitation as ‘where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18’. The term is often used to refer to children and young people involved in gangs, although the actual definition is much broader.

Child criminal exploitation

Vulnerable young people, including those experiencing poorer mental health, are more at risk of being a victim of child criminal exploitation. Being a victim of CCE can also have a detrimental impact on a young person’s mental health through being exposed to violence and trauma, among other things.

There are many reasons why a young person might be more likely to be a victim of CCE. It’s important that schools and further education settings understand these risk factors – any young person could be at risk of CCE, but there may be some pupils who schools pay closer attention to, due to these risk factors. A few of these factors may include:

  • difficulties with attachments, including inconsistency in parenting.
  • unstable family environments, including transitioning often and violence within the home.
  • social and economic disadvantage, including access to resources
  • too little adult supervision
  • having a sibling or relative involved in crime or criminal behaviour
  • boredom
  • discrimination, isolation or little or no sense of belonging
  • feeling unsafe and seeking a gang for “protection”.

Identifying the signs

The push and pull factors that might lead to a young person becoming a victim of child criminal exploitation often relate to mental wellbeing. A few signs that school staff can look out for include:

  • having poor school engagement or being excluded (children excluded from school by age 12 are 4 times more likely to be in prison by age 24).
  • feeling isolated or socially excluded, and looking for a source of support
  • feeling fearful and anxious, and seeking protection (could be linked to child abuse, domestic violence or fearing the neighbourhood in which they live)
  • being overly impulsive which may be the result of conditions including attention deficit overactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe and persistent behavioural problems (also known as conduct disorders).

Poor mental health and child criminal exploitation

Being a victim of CCE can negatively impact children and young people’s mental health in the following ways:

  • Being exposed to violence and other trauma can damage mental health
  • There may be risk of repeated exposure to harmful online material

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

Schools and further education settings have an important role to play when it comes to early intervention to help identify children and young people who may be vulnerable to CCE, or already involved. Here are a few things that schools can do:

  • Understand that a child or young person being criminally exploited is an outcome of vulnerabilities and risk factors – don’t assign blame.
  • Create a whole-school environment where pupils feel safe and supported.
  • Identify and promote avenues of support for children and young people if they are being criminally exploited – who in the school or college should they speak to if they need to?
  • Incorporate health and wellbeing lessons across the curriculum to build children’s self-esteem, support emotional wellbeing and provide them with effective coping strategies.

Top tips

Identifying signs

Look out for changes in children and young people’s behaviour and to indicators of distress and need, such as a lack of engagement with school and teachers, and challenging or risk-taking behaviours. Staff should also notice if a child or young person suddenly has unexplained money, expensive clothing and possessions in school, or who seem to have multiple phones, or changes phones regularly. 


Look at what Early Support Services are available in the local area of your school or college to support at-risk children and young people. Develop strategies and teach programmes that help vulnerable children and young people to belong and build stronger relationships – this could be through peer mentoring or linking young people with other opportunities and activities. When pupils have suspected mental health difficulties, make sure they are referred as early as possible to school or community counselling, or to mental health services.

Community and ethos

Work with peers, families and communities to support children and young people who are at risk of being victims of criminal exploitation. One way is to contact parents early on, and get their support as you discuss what the best options are for moving forward. It’s also important to create a school ethos where children and young people feel safe and secure and where there are clear expectations and boundaries.

Concerned about a child or young person?

If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk in terms of their mental or physical health, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency depending on the presenting concern.

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