Child criminal exploitation is when someone uses a child (under 18 years old) to commit crimes for them.

It includes things like forcing a child to work on a cannabis farm, or grooming a child to sell drugs in county lines operations.

Child criminal exploitation can involve bribery, violence or threats. The child does not need to have met whoever is exploiting them - children can be exploited via the internet or using mobile phones.

A child may have been exploited even if it looks as if they have willingly committed the crime.

Children can be exploited by individuals or groups, men or women, and adults or young people.

People who exploit children use the fact that they have power over children, because of an age difference or some other factor like gender, intelligence, strength, status or wealth.

Who is likely to be exploited

Any child can be a victim of child criminal exploitation. But risk factors include: 

  • neglect or abuse
  • not having a safe and stable home
  • poverty
  • social isolation or other social difficulties
  • connections with people involved in gangs or crime
  • disability
  • mental health issues
  • alcohol or drug problems
  • being in care
  • being excluded from mainstream education 

Signs of exploitation

Signs to look out for include: 

  • often going missing from home or school and being found away from their normal area
  • unexplained money, clothes or mobile phones
  • having multiple mobile phones
  • getting lots of phone calls or texts
  • relationships with older people
  • unexplained injuries 
  • carrying weapons 
  • abandoning friends and their social circle
  • school performance getting worse
  • self-harm
  • significant emotional changes (like becoming more angry or sad)

Any sudden change in a young person’s lifestyle could be because of criminal exploitation and you should talk to them about it.

Advice for children 

If you are worried about a friend

It can be really worrying if you know someone who is in a gang or who you think may be being exploited. You don't have to cope with things on your own.

You could:

How to leave a gang

  • try to spend less time with the other gang members
  • try to avoid places where you know the gang will be
  • contact Childline on 0800 1111 or online
  • ask an adult for help, like a parent, teacher or youth worker you trust
  • call 999 if you are in immediate danger and need urgent help
  • focus on things that you enjoy like sport, music, art, reading or hobbies

Advice for parents and guardians

Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse.

Advice about child abuse for parents, guardians and professionals 

Report possible child criminal exploitation

If you suspect someone of criminally exploiting children, or think someone you know has been or is at risk of becoming a victim find out how to report possible child abuse.

If someone is in immediate danger and needs urgent help please call 999 now. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use our text phone service 18000 or text us on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergency SMS service.

Help and support

Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace)

Support for parents and carers of children who are being exploited by criminals.

Other child abuse support organisations

In London

Safer London Foundation

Support for young people experiencing violence and exploitation.

0207 021 0301

St Giles Trust

Help for young people involved in serious violence, county lines and other types of criminal exploitation.

Staff have lived experience of the issues facing the young people they help.

020 7708 8000

Abianda

Works with young women aged 11 to 24 who are affected by gangs. Supports women to change their lives, develop skills and navigate risk.

020 7686 0520