Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a complex crime which happens in person or online or a combination of both. It can affect girls and boys from any background or community. Perpetrators are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics to manipulate children and young people and evade detection. Young people may not understand the exploitative nature of the experience until months or even years later which makes identification of victims more difficult. We know that young people who are sexually exploited are sometimes viewed negatively and that they are not always recognised as victims of abuse.
Children and young people need information to help them build resilience and make safe choices. Parents and carers need information about how to talk to their children and how to recognise the signs that their child may be at risk. Practitioners must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to recognise sexual exploitation and respond appropriately. This must be accompanied by work to detect, disrupt and prosecute perpetrators and reduce re-offending.
The Scottish Government established the Child Protection Improvement Programme (CPIP) in 2017, overseen by the National Child Protection Leadership Group, to ensure that our child protection system continues to learn and respond effectively to new and emerging issues. In addition to the CPIP workstreams on neglect, internet safety, child trafficking, leadership and workforce development, joint inspections, data and evidence and the Children's Hearings System, a strong emphasis was placed on action to tackle CSE specifically.
In recognition of the complexity of the issue of CSE and the need for national action to drive forward work to address CSE, the Scottish Government worked closely with partners to develop the National Action Plan to Prevent and Tackle Child Sexual Exploitation, published in 2016. The Government convened a National Child Sexual Exploitation Group to determine the necessary actions within the Action Plan and to oversee the delivery and implementation of these actions.
Preventing and tackling sexual exploitation requires a co-ordinated multi-agency response and the Action Plan outlined 44 separate actions designed to help support a range of activity across different organisations and services to drive forward effective responses to the challenges posed by CSE.
This delivery report reflects the range of work delivered over the last three years as part of the Action Plan and highlights the enormous collective effort in tackling CSE.
An early achievement was the Group's efforts in agreeing and establishing a national definition of Child Sexual Exploitation in Scotland. This was an important milestone which has enabled a common understanding of what is meant by CSE across different services and organisations. As a result of the work taken forward by the CSE Group and stakeholders, a lot more is known today about the nature of CSE and the response it requires.
The CSE Group worked in partnership with Child Protection Committees Scotland to develop key messages on child sexual exploitation, as part of a wider series of messaging, to form the basis of ongoing efforts to raise public and media awareness of child protection issues and the role everyone can play to help keep Scotland's children safe from harm:
- Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse
- Child sexual exploitation happens through control, coercion, force, enticement and bribery - it never happens through choice.
- Child sexual exploitation can affect girls and boys of any age, including 16 and 17 year olds.
- Child sexual exploitation happens indoors, outdoors and online, and can happen in any community including remote areas and villages, as well as towns and cities.
- Young people as well as adults can commit child sexual exploitation.
- It's important to understand that child sexual exploitation might not always feel harmful to a child or young person, but it has a damaging impact on the children themselves, and on those around them.
- We all have a role to play in keeping children safe from sexual exploitation. If you're worried that a child is or might be being sexually exploited, it's better to say something than do nothing.
While we can collectively look back on the work achieved as part of this Action Plan with some satisfaction, we must also recognise that the risks posed to children are continuously evolving and that responses to such risks should therefore keep pace and evolve accordingly.
This delivery report does not indicate an end to action in tackling CSE at either national or local level.
The Scottish Government continues to work with partners to consider further action required at a national level to address CSE, including increasing the links with other forms of exploitation affecting children and young people.
Local areas will continue to consider and develop their own responses to exploitation in all its forms.
We have travelled some distance in our understanding of, and response to, CSE and the role played by perpetrators, since the Action Plan's inception and it has been a key driver in raising the profile of, and awareness about Child Sexual Exploitation.