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Child criminal exploitation

What is child criminal exploitation?

It's when a child is pressured to take part in criminal activity. Children and young people can be exploited by organised crime groups or individuals. They groom them into believing they have built up a friendship, but then force, manipulate or coerce the young person into criminal activities. This can include transporting, storing or selling drugs, money laundering, theft and violence.

Types of exploitation

Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact. There are many different crime types which come under the heading of child criminal exploitation and the names of these change all the time. Some examples include: 

  • money laundering – also known as ‘money mules’ or ‘squaring’, where the young person is asked to use their own bank account to hold or move money that has been involved in criminal activity
  • county lines - where urban gangs persuade, coerce or force children and young people to store drugs and money and/or transport them to suburban areas, market towns and coastal towns. It can happen in any part of the UK and is against the law and a form of child abuse
  • cuckooing - crime groups take over someone’s address, usually as a place to store, supply or produce drugs from

How does it start?

The young person often doesn’t realise they are being exploited. They are led to believe that the person exploiting them is their friend, as they are often offered gifts such as money, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. The young person may also feel their new ‘friend’ has status in the community and enjoy the sense of belonging to a new group of peers. 

Who is at risk?

Any child can be targeted by these groups or individuals, regardless of their gender, background or where they live. It is never the fault of the young person or their parents or carers.

What you can do to stop it

Help as soon as you can by:

  • talking to your child about the risks - let them know that this can happen to any child, including them
  • warning them not to accept money, food or favours from someone they don’t know well, or if it doesn’t feel right
  • making time every day to talk with your child and listen to what is happening in their life, including who they are friends with – both in person and online

Know the signs 

Even something that seems like normal teenage behaviour could be a sign that a child is being exploited. The signs can include: 

  • increasing or secretive mobile phone or other device use
  • having multiple mobile phones, sim cards or use of a phone that causes concern - multiple callers or more texts /pings than usual
  • spending an excessive amount of time online and being secretive about time online
  • chatting to people online they have never met
  • having a much older ‘boyfriend’ or ‘friend’ or lots of new friends
  • becoming secretive, argumentative, aggressive, disruptive, quiet, withdrawn
  • having unexplained gifts or new clothes, jewellery, mobile phones
  • having money or access to other goods such as alcohol
  • going missing from home or school
  • staying out late or all night
  • being increasingly disruptive, hostile or physically aggressive at home or school
  • using sexualised language and language relating to drug dealing and/or violence
  • being found with weapons
  • being found with drugs
  • returning from missing episodes with injuries, or dishevelled  
  • using expressions around invincibility or not caring about what happens to them  
  • having an increased interest in making money  
  • increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • fear of reprisal from gang members or violence from young people or adults
  • possession of hotel keys/cards or keys to unknown premises

How to get support

You can contact the Police, other organisations for help, or you can contact us.


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