Last Updated on 16th March 2023

Reading Time: 5.9 mins

March 15, 2023

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The focus of this year’s National Child Exploitation Awareness Day is on child sexual exploitation. The day aims to highlight issues on the topic and encourage people to think, spot and speak out against abuse.

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. We all have a role to play in raising awareness about all forms of exploitation to enable safeguarding professionals, the public, parents and carers, as well as the children and young people in our lives, to recognise the signs of exploitation.

What is Child Sexual Exploitation?


Child sexual exploitation is a type of child sexual abuse which can happen to any child.
It happens when someone uses grooming behaviours (building a relationship based on trust or connection) alongside the promise of money, gifts, affection, protection, or status in exchange for sexual activity with a child or young person. This can happen in organised groups, in personal relationships, and with known perpetrators.

Anyone can be a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation regardless of their age, gender, class, or ethnicity. In some cases, perpetrators will use positions of trust to access or normalise sexual activity with vulnerable children and young people.

CSE can happen both on and offline. It is often combined with other forms of abuse including threats, physical violence, and psychological manipulation. It may have occurred even if the sexual activity appears consensual.

In many cases children and young people may respect, trust, or have a bond with their abuser. This can make detection and disclosures of abuse difficult as children may not understand or recognise the exploitation within their relationship.

Young upset looking male

Figures from the PSNI have revealed that online child grooming crimes have risen by nearly a third in 2022. Specialist officers had their busiest year since 2010, with thousands of devices being seized and tens of thousands of indecent images of children discovered. Online sexual communication with children has risen more than 30% since 2021, with possession or sharing of indecent images also increasing by 22%.

Detective Chief Inspector Kerry Brennan spoke out about this increase, saying, “Children now have access to numerous digital devices at home, meaning they are at greater risk to be targeted by online predators with sinister intentions.”

Even with the work done by specialist detectives, DCI Brennan said that child sexual exploitation remains “challenging to investigate as it often goes unreported, hidden in plain sight.” She has urged everyone to ‘trust your gut’ and get in touch with the PSNI if they’re worried about a child.

To find out more about what the PSNI says about Child Sexual Exploitation, visit their website.

young female sitting on the floor upset

What can I do?


By understanding and recognising the vulnerability factors and behavioural signs associated with child sexual exploitation, you will be better equipped to identify and respond to instances of exploitation around you both online and offline.

A vulnerability factor is a circumstance, condition, or detail which increases the likelihood that an individual will experience or be impacted by a form of abuse. Vulnerability factors for CSE may include a child who has:

  • Been placed in the care system
  • Previous experience of sexual abuse
  • SEND or other disabilities
  • Experience of alcohol and drug use

A behavioural sign is an unusual way of behaving which indicates something is wrong. Some behavioural signs of CSE might include:

  • Not engaging with usual friends or hobbies.
  • Associating with older people or being in a relationship with someone older.
  • Missing classes or not attending school.
  • Leaving home/sneaking out late or all night and being defensive about location and activities.
  • Odd or excessive phone calls and text messages.
  • New belongings which would normally be unaffordable such as mobile phones, clothes, or jewellery.
  • Mood swings or personality changes.
  • Physical signs of abuse, like bruises or burns.
  • Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Not sleeping, eating, or taking care of personal hygiene.
  • Engaging in a form of self-harm.
teenage male upset talking to someone

It should be noted that child sexual exploitation can take place without any of these behavioural signs being present.

Although the signs of exploitation among boys and girls can be similar, our expectations of their behaviour can greatly influence how we respond to these signs. For example, if we expect boys to be flirtatious or unemotional and expect girls to be shy or withholding, we may miss a cry for help or unusual behaviour.

Help & Support

If you suspect or are worried a child is being sexually exploited, contact the PSNI. If the child is in immediate danger, ring 999 (or 101 in a non-emergency).

For further help, contact:

NSPCC – 0808 800 5000

Childline – 0800 11 11

Barnardo’s SEEN project (Sexual Exploitation Ends Now) – 028 9065 8511

‘Text-a-Nurse’ scheme (confidential health advice for young people aged 11-19 in Northern Ireland): 

  • Belfast Trust Text–A-Nurse 07507 328290
  • Northern Trust Text–A-Nurse 07480 635982
  • Southern Trust Text–A-Nurse  07507 328057
  • Western Trust Text–A-Nurse 07480 635984
  • South Eastern Trust Text–A-Nurse 07507 327263


We spoke with Dr Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin, a CSE specialist based in Northern Ireland. She shares her advice from years of safeguarding research and experience in this series of videos that will support your efforts to protect the children and young people in your care.

An Introduction


Learn more about Child Sexual Exploitation and how you can protect the children and young people in your care.

Child Sexual Exploitation: A Gendered Lens

Understand how our expectations of gender behaviours can be a barrier to recognising Child Sexual Exploitation.

Challenging Assumptions & Supporting Disclosures

Find out how you can challenge assumptions and create a supportive relationship to support children to disclose exploitation.

How to recognise the signs of CSE Advice for Foster Carers

Hear advice for foster carers on how to recognise and seek support if they suspect Child Sexual Exploitation.

Barriers to Recognising Male Child Sexual Exploitation

Learn more about the barriers that can prevent you from recognising Child Sexual Exploitation among boys.

Male Child Sexual Exploitation: Advice for Professionals

Hear how professionals can create an enabling environment for young people to disclose exploitation and abuse.

Advice for Professionals When Working with Male Victims of CSE

Find out how professionals can work together to tackle the issue and best support male victims of Child Sexual Exploitation.


For further learning in safeguarding education, take a look at our selection of Training Courses, including Child Sexual Exploitation. Find out more here.

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Who are your Trusted Adults?

The Trusted Adult video explains who young people might speak to and includes examples of trusted adults, charities and organisations.

Pause, Think and Plan

Use our video for guidance and advice around constructing conversations about the online world with the children in your care.



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