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Industry Focus

Drawing the Line

Retailers Need to "Look Closer" for Signs of child Exploitation 

If you thought exploiting children into crime was confined to Victorian times and the pages of Oliver Twist, a campaign The Children’s Society is running will hopefully make you think again. Thousands of children all over the country are being exploited every day in “county lines” drug dealing operations. This is just one example of child criminal exploitation, which can involve coercing children into everything from theft and violence to fraud and money laundering.

Exploitation begins when criminals groom children and young people with offers of drugs and alcohol or promises of belonging, status, and wealth. Once the children are reeled in, the perpetrators then force the children to carry and deal drugs across the country, using terrifying threats, violence, and sexual abuse to ensure compliance.

The Children’s Society’s Look Closer campaign aims to tackle this appalling crime and ensure children are identified and supported as victims. It encourages everyone to look out for warning signs of child exploitation and report any concerns to the Police.

It’s hard to say just how many children are being exploited. There are real gaps in published data, and many young people are too frightened to report what is happening to them. What we do know is that any child or young person from any community can be vulnerable to being groomed, exploited, and abused. That includes children from more affluent backgrounds. How-ever, our research has found that some particularly vulnerable groups may be deliberately targeted: children who have experienced family breakdown, challenges at home, and poverty; those in care; those with special educational needs; and those attending pupil referral units. Our research report, Counting Lives, shows that children as young as seven have been targeted, including both boys and girls. Current data suggests those preyed on are mostly boys in their early to mid teens. However, there is increasing evidence of girls being targeted and criminal exploitation of girls is often overlooked.

Children may go missing for days or even weeks at a time as they are often sent to deal the drugs many miles from home, usually in market and coastal towns. They are expected to take calls from customers on the burner phone lines that give the illicit trade its name and to stay in filthy trap houses. Trap houses are often the homes of vulnerable young persons or adults, who may be drug users or have learning disabilities, that have been taken over by organised crime groups. 

These children are often under constant threat from the criminals who are exploiting them. Social media apps, including location tracking and live streaming , may be used to monitor them and keep them under control. They may also be targeted by dealers from rival organised crime groups, and there are strong links between county lines exploitation and violent crime, including knife crime.

In short, the experience can be hugely traumatic and downright dangerous for children. Some tragically lose their lives. As awful as all this is, why should it matter to retailers? Isn’t it an issue for Police, parents, and other professionals? While all those groups can have different but vital roles to play when a child is exploited, children may feel trapped and scared of the repercussions if they ask for help. Others may have been manipulated to feel they are making a choice and that they are a valued member of the operation. The reality is very different. These children are seen as collateral damage by the criminals who have groomed them and are using them to do their dirty work. They are easily dispensed with and replaced should they be arrest-ed.

That’s where the Look Closer campaign comes in. It is run by The Children’s Society’s Home Office-funded Prevention Programme in conjunction with the National County Lines Coordination Centre and Police forces, including the British Transport Police. The campaign urges anyone who encounters children in their daily lives to report any concerns that a child might be being exploited to the Police to enable them to investigate. That includes not just parents and professionals but everyone from morning commuters and delivery drivers to hotel staff and sports coaches.

It works on the principle that it is better to report a concern that proves to be unfounded than to say nothing and potentially miss a golden opportunity to help a vulnerable child. People may not feel what they are reporting will be enough for the Police to act upon, but it could be a crucial first piece in the puzzle in helping a child escape a situation of horrific abuse and unimaginable trauma. 

Preventing Exploitation Is Everyone’s Business 

Retail staff are among those who can play a crucial role in spotting signs of child criminal ex-ploitation and reporting it to the Police. For a start, young people who are being groomed and exploited may use some of the shops. There may even be occasions where the person or per-sons grooming the children bring them in to buy them new clothes, trainers, jewellery, or a phone as part of the grooming process. 

If you have concerns about a child for any reason (maybe they appear nervous, flustered, angry, or aggressive, all common signs of trauma, or under the control of another person), it’s best to contact Police. You don’t need to know for certain that exploitation lies behind your worries. It is enough to be concerned that this is a possibility. 

It’s not just the likes of cashiers, staff keeping the shelves stocked, and meeters and greeters who can play their part by being vigilant. Managers, security guards, and CCTV operators may all have opportunities to spot signs a child is being exploited. 

Staff working in food retail and hospitality also have a really important part to play. Fast food outlets, cafes, pubs, and restaurants offer Wi-Fi access and cheap food that appeals to children, and some may be open around the clock. Perpetrators may buy young people food as part of the grooming process. 

Staff should remain alert outside shops and hospitality premises. Public spaces in shopping centres, where staff may wile away their lunch breaks, may also be used by children who are being exploited and by criminals looking for children to befriend and groom. Children are often told to use public transport to move around the country. So retail staff commuting to work and passing through train, bus, and coach stations should be vigilant for signs of exploitation. The British Transport Police have been a proactive partner in the Look Closer campaign.

Some organised crime groups also groom children to shoplift. This could be a stand-alone form of exploitation or in addition to exploitation into county lines activity. So if a member of security staff, for example, catches a child shoplifting, it’s important that they use professional curiosity to look out for signs the young person is under the control of someone else and report any such suspicions to the Police.

Delivery drivers working for retailers can also play an important role from a different perspective because they may be able to spot signs of exploitation in the community and within people’s homes. Last summer, The Children’s Society ran a poster campaign urging people visiting homes under lockdown, including delivery couriers and key workers, to ‘Know, Look, Act.” The message is just as important now. Drivers, electricians, and engineers sent to fit appliances in people’s homes could, for instance, be well placed to spot signs that a house has been taken over as a trap house. They might notice that unaccompanied children are frequently visiting a house where only adults live or see children carrying or using drugs. They may also be well placed to spot signs of sexual and domestic abuse and neglect in family homes. The majority of cases of sexual abuse take place within the home where it is hidden and often never reported. 

Spotting the Signs

Signs to look out for could include bruises, burns, bite marks, or fractures; children appearing withdrawn, anxious, or frightened; or hearing or seeing shouting and violence towards a child. We would urge retailers to encourage courier firms to ask their drivers to stay curious and re-port any concerns to the Police. They should not, of course, attempt to intervene themselves.

It is vital that people look beyond the obvious. Exploited children may not always appear upset or vulnerable or behave in the way we would expect of victims. We know trauma may cause them to appear angry or aggressive, and they are often manipulated into thinking they are making a choice. They may have a distrust of adults in authority and Police and may need to feel safe and heard before they feel comfortable talking about what might be happening to them.

County lines and other types of criminal exploitation are not the only concerns. Children are al-so targeted for sexual exploitation, for example, by adults who groom them by posing as older “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.” Labour exploitation is another danger. Organised criminals may force them to work in places like car washes, cannabis farms, and nail bars. 

Sometimes a child may be exploited in more than one way at the same time. For example, they may be groomed both into crimes like county lines drug dealing while also being sexually exploited. The grim practice whereby some criminal groups force children to hide drugs within their bodies is in itself a form of sexual abuse. Children have also been forced to participate in group sex that is filmed and then used as leverage to blackmail them and keep them trapped in an exploitative situation. 

Many of the signs that something is wrong may be similar regardless of the type of exploitation. For example, hotel staff might be concerned about children who appear uncomfortable in the company of an adult who they suspect may not be a family member. While there may be an innocent explanation, there is also a possibility that they might be exploiting and sexually abusing these children. Equally, they could also be offered drugs or alcohol at the hotel as part of grooming for county lines, and the room may be used to package up drugs. If you have concerns, though, don’t feel you have to diagnose exactly what is happening. The most important thing you can do is report them to the Police.

Successive lockdowns haven’t put paid to the activities of the organised criminals exploiting these children. Instead, predators have adapted their methods to continue to prey on children during the pandemic, taking advantage of young people’s isolation, worries about family finances, and problems at home to groom them with cash, gifts, and offers of friendship. Many children have been less visible to professionals like teachers and social workers, who in normal circumstances may be well placed to spot the signs they were at risk.

Tactics adopted by perpetrators have included arranging to meet children or forcing them to sell drugs in locations in which they would be less conspicuous during lockdown, including car parks of big supermarkets that have remained open and busy over the last year. However, the easing of lockdown restrictions means there are now new opportunities for more people, including retail staff, to spot signs of child exploitation.

Getting Children the Help They Need

How should staff approach a child they are worried about? What should they say? The Children’s Society suggests being honest about your concerns while avoiding pressuring them to disclose exactly what is happening. You could approach them if safe to do so with a friendly, “Hi, are you alright?” or “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you seem a little upset. Can I help?” It’s possible they may give you a plausible explanation that allays your worries. Equally, they may offer an assurance they are fine that just doesn’t sit right with you. Trust your instincts; if you are still concerned, report those concerns to the Police. 

If you are worried that a child is being exploited and may in fact be a victim of exploitation, you may feel it is counter-intuitive to call Police if you don’t want them to get into trouble. However, the Modern Slavery Act accepts that grooming and exploitation should be a defence for children found taking part in criminal activity like couriering drugs. The Children’s Society is urging the Government to strengthen this legislation by adding a clear definition of child criminal exploitation. Children can be formally recognised as victims following a referral by Police or another agency to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national system for identifying victims of modern slavery and exploitation. We are calling on the Government to ensure that all children referred to the NRM get access to an independent advocate who can help them to secure the support they need.

That help may be offered by organisations like The Children’s Society. We offer services in some parts of the country to children at risk of exploitation and those who have already been exploited, including in London, Essex, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, and Newcastle. This includes one-to-one support, group work, and therapy. We also support children who go missing from home and care and those who have been sexually abused or exploit-ed, which can happen when children are groomed to traffic drugs. 

Through our Prevention Programme, Disrupting Exploitation Programme, and other national initiatives, we are working hard to ensure Police officers, social workers, and other professionals understand that these children are not troublesome teenagers who are choosing to get involved in a life of crime. These are children who are being manipulated by adults who prey up-on their vulnerabilities. What they need isn’t to be hauled before the courts, but recognition as victims of exploitation and professional support to stay safe, recover from their ordeals, and look ahead to a brighter future, while the Police target the real criminals. 

We work with the Police, councils, and businesses, including retailers, offering training to help ensure their staff understand the issue and to help them spot and respond to signs of exploitation. We work with them to identify hot spot locations where exploitation is taking place as well as specific threats. We provide advice on safeguarding children and disrupting exploitation, collecting intelligence, and coordinating the involvement of local agencies to avoid duplication. 

An understanding of child exploitation by staff in the retail and hospitality industries and their active involvement in reporting concerns about children can only add to this intelligence picture and help the Police go after the criminals who have been pulling the strings of these children, while ensuring their victims get support.

There are encouraging signs of progress, not least in the shape of Police support for our Look Closer campaign and our Look Closer awareness weeks, which usually take place three or four times a year. The campaign’s latest awareness week ran in mid May. During the week, staff from The Children’s Society’s Prevention Programme offered online learning events to professionals in Police forces, local authorities, retail, food and hospitality, hotels, banking, transportation, professional football clubs (including community outreach coaches), and churches. Posters, leaflets, stickers, and social media content were shared with these groups as well as taxi drivers, street pastors, housing associations, other businesses, and train and bus companies. The campaign was also promoted on digital billboards and in rail stations. 

Retailers were among the companies that joined an awareness week online training session aimed specifically at businesses. The session, titled “Preventing Exploitation Is Everyone’s Business,” focused upon the role of businesses in safeguarding children from exploitation and harm. It looked at some of the innovative ways that businesses can help to prevent child exploitation, and Police forces across the country supported the campaign and helped to raise awareness of its importance among both their own officers and staff, as well as the wider public. 

But Look Closer isn’t just a message for one specific week, it is relevant each and every day. It’s vital that anyone working in retail who is concerned that a child is being exploited reports their concerns to the Police on 101. If on a train, you can text British Transport Police on 61016. But always dial 999 if there is an immediate risk to a child. If you want to remain completely anonymous, you can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers online or call the helpline on 0800 555111. By contacting the Police with concerns about a child, you could be taking a crucial first step in helping them escape a situation of horrific abuse and unimaginable trauma.

For more information about the Look Closer campaign, visit childrenssociety.org.uk/lookcloser. Retailers who would like to learn more about working with The Children’s Society to prevent child exploitation and abuse should email Prevention@childrenssociety.org.uk


LUCY BELCHER is one of the service managers leading The Children’s Society’s National Exploitation Prevention Programme; a Home Office funded programme working collaboratively across England and Wales to prevent and improve responses to child exploitation and abuse, modern slavery, and human trafficking. Lucy has worked both directly with young people facing exploitation and with the systems surrounding young people to improve safeguarding responses. In 2019, she co-authored Counting Lives, a policy report from The Children’s Society calling for a national strategy to tackle child criminal exploitation.

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