Child sexual abuse and child sexual and criminal exploitation

Child sexual abuse involves a child engaging in activity for the sexual gratification of another adult, child or young person.  

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It involves a person or group take advantage of a power imbalance to entice, force or persuade a child into engaging in sexual activity. This is in return for something received by the child and/or those perpetrating or allowing the abuse.  

Child sexual abuse can take place in person or online. It  can be a one-off event or it can occur over a long period of time. 

Child sexual abuse and exploitation involve serious crime. If you think a child is being or has been abused o you should report it immediately. There is more information about reporting child sexual abuse is available on Parent Club. 

Tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation  

We work closely with partners including Police Scotland, social workers and civic society to deliver a co-ordinated multi-agency response to preventing child sexual abuse and exploitation.   

We also work with the third sector on awareness raising, interventions and victim support work, including providing funding.

In 2014 we published Scotland’s first national action plan to prevent child sexual exploitation. It was updated in 2016 and set out actions to strengthen Scotland’s response to this form of abuse.

In 2020 we published a Delivery Report on the progress by the government, statutory and third sector against these actions. 

Online harms

We recognise the potential online harms facing children, including the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

We work with our partners through the Police Scotland Multi-Agency Preventing Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Group to inform our approach to keeping children safe online.

We also work with the UK Government to ensure it uses its powers to regulate the internet and online service providers to protect children from harm online. 

Public awareness  

Raising public awareness is an important element of our approach to keeping Scotland’s children safe from sexual abuse and online exploitation. In 2021, 2022 and 2023 we ran national public awareness campaigns on child sexual abuse. These included advising parents and carers on how to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation and how to help keep children safe online.  

Safety hub

We have developed the Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Hub. It provides information for parents and carers including how to: 

  • spot the signs of abuse 
  • talk to children about sexual abuse 
  • report concerns  
  • access help and support 

We have also established an Online Safety Hub. It includes:

  • how to protect children online
  • how to talk to children about online safety
  • how to set boundaries
  • what to do when a child has a bad online experience

Guidance for practitioners 

We have developed guidance material to make sure that practitioners in this field can identify and support children who are at risk or victims of sexual abuse. 

In 2016 we published Child sexual exploitation: definition and practitioner briefing paper

In 2017 we published Child sexual exploitation: a guide for health practitioners

In 2021 we published National Guidance for child protection in Scotland 2021. This provides updated information to support local areas to develop effective, evidence-based responses and detailed advice for all practitioners to identify and support victims.

Child criminal exploitation 

Criminal exploitation of children occurs when an individual or group:

  • takes advantage of an imbalance of power
  • uses or threatens violence to manipulate or deceive a child into criminal activity

This is often for financial or another advantage of the perpetrator.  

A child may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact. It can also occur through the use of technology. 

Child criminal exploitation is abuse, and an immediate child protection response is required. If you have concerns that a child is at risk of criminal exploitation, or is being criminally exploited, you should report your concerns to the police or social work without delay. 

Child criminal exploitation is a complex, evolving and often hidden form of abuse.  We are working with partners to understand the nature and extent of this form of abuse. This is work to ensure that children who are at risk of, or are victims are identified and supported.

We funded the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) to produce a review of child criminal exploitation to inform our policy and work on this issue.  

Guidance for practitioners 

In June 2023 we published Practitioner Guidance on Criminal Exploitation on behalf of the Serious Organised Crime Taskforce.

The guidance aims to support a shared understanding of criminal exploitation of children and adults. It also aims to help professionals identify those at risk from criminal exploitation. The guidance also applies to criminal exploitation which is not linked to serious organised crime. 

The National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2021 describes the responsibilities and expectations of everyone who works with children, young people and their families in Scotland. It provides practitioners with information on on child criminal exploitation and the processes they should follow if a child has been or is being exploited. 

If you are concerned about a child or young person

Call 999 if they are in immediate danger

Call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed

More about reporting a concern and for advice and support

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