Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children, while children and young people from all backgrounds can fall victim to child sexual exploitation (or CSE), looked after children are some of the most vulnerable. This is because they may not have the trust and support of close family and friends, and are less likely to speak out about what they’re going through.
That’s why it’s so important that foster carers understand the impact of CSE and the warning signs to look for.
To help support carers who may be concerned about their child’s safety, we’ve put together a complete guide to child sexual exploitation for foster carers. We’ve included a definition of CSE, how to spot the signs and additional resources to help you understand more about its impact on children.
Use the links below to skip ahead to the information you need, or read on for the full guide.
- What is Child Sexual Exploitation and How Is It Defined?
- How to Spot the Signs of Child Sexual Exploitation
- What Impact Does CSE Have on Looked After Children?
Child sexual exploitation is the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children and young people under the age of 18. Victims are persuaded into sexual activity by people who’ve targeted them because of their age, vulnerability and inexperience, often through some form of ‘grooming’.
Grooming is when a victim is persuaded to perform sexual activities in exchange for receiving something, such as money, clothes, alcohol, drugs or even affection. There are many different kinds of grooming, but they often follow a similar pattern. The child’s defences are slowly broken down and the perpetrator establishes control over their lives and relationships.
Grooming may even just be the tip of the iceberg, hiding a wider range of abuse.
Violence or threats towards the child or members of their family is often used as a way to prevent them from revealing their abuse.
Technology can also play a part in continuing the cycle – with abusers often threatening to share explicit images or stories of their victims online.
CSE isn’t just physical abuse; there are a growing number of cases of children being sexually exploited online, without ever meeting their abuser. This happens when a child is encouraged to perform sexual activities online, such as sharing sexual images of themselves.
This can be one of the most difficult forms of child sexual exploitation to spot, and is one of the main reasons why internet safety is so important for keeping children safe online.
Perhaps the most concerning part of CSE is the fact that children sometimes don’t understand when they’re being abused. They might think that their abuser has genuine feelings for them, or that sharing sexual images online is normal. This is makes spotting the warning signs of abuse, and breaking the cycle, so challenging for foster carers.
Young people try lots of new things when they’re a teenager, and this can make it difficult for carers to manage their behaviour without stopping them from experiencing life and learning about themselves. Looked after young people are at their most vulnerable during these teenage years, and it’s during this time when they’re most likely to fall victim to child sexual exploitation.
While CSE affects every victim differently, there may be cause for concern if you notice any of the following warning signs:
- Expensive new things you know they can’t afford – Clothes, jewellery and technology like mobile phones that they can’t explain could be a sign they’ve fallen victim to grooming.
- Sudden change in personality – Have you noticed a change in their personality? Perhaps they may seem more confident, sad or are prone to mood swings? Or maybe they’ve become secretive and aren’t as open to you anymore? Sudden changes need to be addressed as they could be a sign of abuse.
- Falling out with close friends and family – Does your child no longer see their close friends, or perhaps they’ve fallen out with a member of your family? When a child distances themselves from old relationships it can be a sign that something’s wrong, and is often something that’s encouraged by their abuser.
- Associating with different friends– On the flipside, they may have new friends you’ve never previously met, who may be much older and may not go to the same school. Grooming networks often encourage friendships between abuse victims as a means of continuing the cycle of abuse.
- Unusual internet use and protective of their devices – Your child may use the internet late at night, receive strange messages, phone calls or requests on social media. They may also become defensive about you touching their devices.
- Return home late or start missing school – Your child may disappear for hours at a time, and get defensive when you ask them where they’ve been. In some cases, they might stay out all night, which would of course be a cause for concern.
- Look tired or unwell – This could show that they’ve been staying up late talking to people online, or that they’ve been drinking or using drugs.
- Sudden change in how they dress – Different clothing choices can mean they’ve fallen in with a different friendship group, or that they’re trying to impress older people. It could also show that they’ve received gifts from an abuser.
- Unexplained marks and scars – They may try to conceal marks on their body, either caused by violence or sexual activities.
- Argumentative, dismissive or threatening – Child sexual abusers try to build a divide between the victim and their family and friends, and this can lead to negative behavioural changes towards you.
The impact of child sexual exploitation can be devasting, with long-term damages that affect the whole family. Suffering this kind of physical and emotional abuse can be incredibly traumatic for young people, and it could have a lasting impact on their life.
Here, we look some of the effects CSE can have on young people in foster care.
- They may be reluctant to leave their abuser – It can be distressing and confusing to see a child return to their abuser. But for many, their experience may be the first they’ve had of love and sex – meaning they could have misplaced loyalties towards them. This cycle is really difficult to break, and is one of the reasons why grooming is so powerful.
- Control and manipulation – CSE victims are often threatened with violence if they disclose their abuse, which leads them to feel like they are protecting their family and friends by withholding and enduring their abuse.
- Long-term emotional effects – CSE can leave children with long-term emotional issues, such as low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and severe trust issues. It can also leave them unwilling to start new relationships, or with a sense of misplaced guilt about the impact it will have on the life of their abuser. Often, specialist counselling is needed to help them overcome the trauma of CSE.
- Negative consequences for the entire family – CSE can have a major impact on family life. Your child may get in trouble with the authorities, which can lead to stress and worry at home, and it may impact how much attention you’re able to give to any other children. It can cause marital stress and relationship problems.
It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in coping with the impact of child sexual exploitation, and we’d recommend this guide from PACE on living with CSE.
At NFA, we offer full, 24/7 support to all our foster carers, as well as training and development to help them cope with the challenges of raising a child. For more information on how to get involved with fostering, visit our homepage or call us now on 0800 044 3030.