Sexual exploitation - advice
This advice provides information regarding sexual exploitation and responding to children at risk of, or experiencing, sexual exploitation.
Document ID number 2405, version 4, 20 November 2021.
See procedure Sexual exploitation for actions that must be undertaken.
Children who are clients of child protection are at an increased risk of, or vulnerable to, sexual exploitation. Children may be at risk of sexual exploitation when they are living with the family, with kin or in a care services arrangement.
Terms and definitions
“Child sexual exploitation… involves children being forced or manipulated into sexual activity in exchange for something – money, gifts or accommodation or less tangible goods such as affection or status. The sexual activity and exchange may be seen as consensual but is based on an imbalance of power which severely limits victim’s options.
Child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition. For example, children may be persuaded to post sexual images on the internet or mobile phones without immediate payment or gain.
Violence, coercion, and intimidation are common features of an exploitative relationship; which is also characterised by the child’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social, economic and/or emotional vulnerability”.
(Tackling child exploitation: helping local authorities to develop local responses. Barnardo’s: 2012)
Grooming behaviours may include the provision of, or attention paid to the child, including exposing the child to sexualised talk or pornography; providing drugs, alcohol, money or mobile phones; or manipulating the child through threats or the misuse of authority.
Disruption occurs when police apply laws to a known or suspected perpetrator in relation to offences (such as breaches of family violence orders, traffic or drug offences) other than child sex or exploitation, to interrupt or impede their activities. This approach is undertaken when the child is unwilling or unable to make a statement and will vary according to the information available.
Person of interest
A person of interest is someone known or suspected to be sexually exploiting a child and may or may not have convictions for other child or sexual offences.
Sexual exploitation template
The sexual exploitation information template contains all relevant information about a child believed or confirmed to be subject to sexual exploitation. It contains questions for the case manager and professionals involved to consider. When completed it is provided to Victoria Police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams within five business days.
Sexual exploitation link charts
A sexual exploitation link chart provides a visual overview of sexual exploitation networks between children and person(s) of interest. The link chart can be created for an individual child or for groups of children by care or professional team members. Please seek advice from the sexual exploitation practice leader on how to create a link chart.
Sexual exploitation evidence tier ratings
Sexual exploitation evidence tier ratings articulate the severity of risk and strategies to protect the child.
There is confirmed information of exploitative activity, including dates, times and locations. For example:
- the identity of person of interest(s) is known or currently being established
- the child discloses sex acts with an adult (sexual exploitation) or a critical incident of sexual assault (such as rape). In this example the identity of the offender is not required.
The child’s behaviour or actions suggest they are being sexually exploited, however further investigation is required to confirm this or identify the person(s) of interest with assistance of Victoria Police.
Children assessed at high risk of sexual exploitation and where there is limited information to confirm this, should be classified as being ‘actively monitored’ (AM). Care or professional team members must implement enhanced measures to monitor safety and support the child.
Children requiring active monitoring may have been previously categorised as Tier 1 or 2.
Responding to sexual exploitation
When identifying children at risk of sexual exploitation, the case manager and key professionals need to establish appropriate strategies to protect a child and gather and share information.
Practice considerations should include:
- regular care or professionals team meetings
- working collaboratively with Victoria Police, relevant professionals and any other relevant parties
- adherence to the following principles:
- sexual exploitation of children is child abuse and should not be minimised as ‘experimentation’
- children cannot consent to sexual exploitation
- Victoria has a zero tolerance approach to sexual exploitation.
- If the child is unable or unwilling to make a sworn statement to police about the sexual exploitation, disruptive methods to keep the child safe must be implemented
- regular consultation with child protection managers (including the sexual exploitation practice leader).
See procedure Sexual exploitation for tasks that must be undertaken.
Mobile phone and social media information gathering processes
It can be difficult to obtain information to confirm that a child is being sexually exploited, or to identify the perpetrator and location of the exploitation.
The care or professionals team should consider the least intrusive approach to collect this information while taking reasonable actions to ensure the safety of the child, including:
- removing and viewing contents on the child’s mobile phone
- viewing and documenting the child’s on-line social media activity.
When deciding to remove a mobile phone or view a social media profile consideration should be given to the:
- child’s safety
- best interests principles (s.10, CYFA)
- child’s human rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006
- child’s right to privacy.
The decision and rationale for these actions are to be recorded on the client file.
Mobile phones can be a primary way for perpetrators engage with children. Saved emails, text messages, photos or online chat histories can provide information about sexual exploitation.
Where a child is subject to an order where parental responsibility is retained, consent must be sought from the parent prior to the removal of a phone.
Where the Secretary has parental responsibility, parental consent is not required to remove a phone and the following must be considered:
- Is there a belief the phone contains information or intelligence on sexual exploitative activity?
- Would the information assist cease or disrupt sexual exploitative activity?
- Has Victoria Police agreed to receive the phone and view its contents?
When removing a phone:
- the child protection practitioner or a member of the care or professionals' team should first ask the child to provide their phone voluntarily
- if consent is not provided, where practical, consent from the child’s parents should be sought
- without consent of the child or parent steps should be taken to ensure the:
- phone is not forcibly removed from the child
- phone is removed from the child if it is left unattended
- likely negative response from the child has been considered with a detailed plan to respond.
All decisions to remove a mobile phone must be made in consultation with a supervisor and recorded on CRIS.
Children may use a range of social media platforms and applications via their mobile phone, computer or other electronic devices, to maintain contact with people exploiting them.
The child protection practitioner may view these and provide relevant information obtained to police and key professionals.
Before accessing a child’s social media platform, practitioners need to:
- adhere to the organisation’s social media policy
- adhere to the terms and conditions of the social media platform accessed. For example, an account must not be established using false details.
- not to use personal social media accounts to contact, communicate with or follow a child. Information relevant to the protection of the child must be documented in the child’s file including:
- how the information was obtained
- rationale for seeking the information (such as care team objective to locate missing child)
- child’s awareness, or not, that information has been obtained.
Risk and response planning
When a child is believed or confirmed to be sexually exploited, an individual risk and response plan is required.
The plan should be developed and regularly reviewed in consultation with the child’s family, care or professional team. The review risk assessment should also be regularly updated to ensure the risk of sexual exploitation is assessed and the relevant actions to monitor, increase safety and decrease the risks of sexual exploitation are recorded. The overall consequence and probability of harm judgements should inform decisions, such as the need to initiate a protection application.
When completed, the plan is placed on the child’s CRIS file detailed in an After Hours Child Protection Emergency Service (AHCPES) possible contact.
Practice considerations when developing and reviewing the plan must include:
- review and update of the essential information categories for relevant and significant information
- an assessment of the child, including known vulnerabilities, events leading to the belief or confirmation of them being sexually exploited
- knowledge of person(s) of interest, or locations the child is believed or confirmed to associate with or visit
- actions implemented to disrupt or prevent sexual exploitation (such as an active intervention order in place)
- information about the escalating or deescalating level of risk
- concise advice for families or professionals (including police) to follow when the child is believed or confirmed to be at risk of sexual exploitation (for example the child has left their placement and whereabouts are unknown), including where the child must not under any circumstance be left at a given address
- who is best assessed to engage the child when located.
Disrupting sexual exploitation
Only Victoria Police can prosecute person(s) of interest. Child protection practitioners must work collaboratively with Victoria Police and regularly share information to identify perpetrators and implement disruptive measures.
Legal options for child protection and Victoria Police to consider may include:
- serving the perpetrator with a ss. 495 and 497 CYFA 2005 Harbouring Letter or Loitering Letter
- applying for a family violence or personal safety intervention order on behalf of the child or young person against the perpetrator.
Further disruptive measures or legal actions may be required if the child or person of interest do not comply. This must only occur following consultation with Victoria Police and child protection managers (including the sexual exploitation practice leader).
See procedure Sexual exploitation for tasks that must be undertaken.
- There must be sufficient evidence of sexual exploitation before considering disruption techniques.
- Case notes must contain details of the purpose, key issues, changes to the risk assessment, decisions made, planning, action taken or required and any other relevant information.
- Consultation with Victoria Police SOCIT is vital when considering harbouring or loitering notices, or intervention order applications alongside or following notices being served.
- To prosecute harbouring and loitering offences, it is desirable that Victoria Police or child protection have previously informed the person in writing:
- of the child’s age
- that the child is subject to monitoring by the Secretary of the department
- that the child has not been given permission to associate with, or attend any residence owned or frequented by the person of interest
- that information received subsequent to the date of notice regarding the child being harboured or concealed by the person may result in a police investigation.
Prosecution procedure guidelines
Only a member of Victoria Police can prosecute a person of interest for harbouring or concealing offences under the CYFA, and SOCIT will usually lead the investigation.
To prosecute a person for the offences, it is desirable that police or child protection have previously informed the person that:
- the child or young person is subject to monitoring by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services
- the child or young person has not been given permission to associate with, or attend any residence owned or frequented by the person of interest, and
- information received subsequent to the date of notice regarding the child or young person being harboured or concealed by the person will result in a police investigation.
It is not a legal requirement to advise the person of interest in writing of the above; however all dialogue with the person of interest must be documented in CRIS, inclusive of dates, times and communicated responses.
Considerations for good practice
Case and care team planning review
When formulating and enacting plans to address or prevent sexual exploitation a review of a child’s case or care team plan and actions table is required to ensure:
- actions to develop or strengthen their engagement with positive role models are implemented
- actions to maintain or reengage the child with educational or other day-program activities are implemented
- consideration of key factors that are resulting in the child being sexually exploited
- that within the broader case plan, the suitability of the child’s current placement is reviewed
- appropriate referrals to support services are considered.
Engagement with children and young people
The absence of an emotional connection with an adult is a primary risk factor for sexual exploitation. This emotional need is exploited by offenders through grooming and is a barrier for children to disclose sexual exploitation.
Advice regarding how to effectively build relationships and engage young people can be found in Adolescents and their families (pdf, 2 MB) .
Understanding a child’s perspective
Children subject to sexual exploitation may not identify as victims. They may refer to or identify perpetrators as their ‘boyfriend or girlfriend’, ‘friend’, or ‘the only person who cares about me’. Children often get ‘something’ out of the exploitation, for example, perceived emotional connection, support or financial gain.
A lack of emotional connection, trauma and grief and loss issues may result in children being particularly vulnerable to the seduction and manipulation of perpetrators.
When efforts are undertaken that impact on their connection with perpetrators, children may become upset that their private lives are being interfered with. They may become acutely distressed, which can lead to other risks emerging such as self-harming behaviour.
There needs to be an ongoing, open discussion with the child about the risks they are taking, the concerns held about their safety and why specific actions are being taken.
Sexual exploitation and gender
Responses to sexual exploitation should not be gendered. Victims and perpetrators of sexual exploitation can be both male and female. It is important not to let the gender of a child or adult affect your understanding of behaviour and assessment of risk. A UK study found that up to one in three young people receiving services to address sexual exploitation were male (Barnardos, Not just a girl thing, 2014).
Sexual exploitation and disability
Children with an intellectual or learning disability are especially vulnerable to the risk of sexual exploitation. This may be due to their impaired social connection skills or cognitive understanding, lack of available and appropriate sexual health education materials, the infantilisation of children and young people with a disability and ability to say no to adults.
Models of sexual exploitation
Usually involving one perpetrator who has inappropriate power or control over a child (physical, emotional or financial). One indicator may be a significant age gap. The child may believe they are in a loving relationship.
‘Boyfriend’ model of exploitation and peer exploitation
The perpetrator befriends and grooms a child into a ‘relationship’ and then coerces or forces them to have sex with friends or associates. Sometimes this can be associated with gang activity but not always.
Organised/networked sexual exploitation or trafficking
Children (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced or coerced into sexual activity with multiple perpetrators.
Push and pull factors are the personal and situational factors that contribute to the increased risk of sexual exploitation. A push factor is something that ‘pushes’ the child away from safety and towards exploitation (for example; unsettled placement or limited (no) attachment to positive adults).
A pull factor is something that ‘pulls’ (or attracts) the child towards sexual exploitation (for example; an offer of friendship and love, perceived glamour, connection to a subculture, access to drugs and alcohol)
(Jackson, A. (2014). Literature review: Young people at high risk of sexual exploitation, absconding, and other significant harms, Melbourne: Berry Street Childhood Institute).