Child Exploitation Perpetrated by Groups

The UK Government has published a paper on the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation, which was prompted by high profile cases of sexual grooming in towns including Rochdale and Rotherham.

The paper sets out the limited available evidence on the characteristics of offenders including how they operate, ethnicity, age, offender networks, as well as the context in which these crimes are often committed, along with implications for frontline responses and for policy development.

The paper considers child sexual exploitation (CSE) perpetrated by groups, a form of child sexual abuse characterised by multiple interconnected offenders grooming and sexually exploiting children. This includes forms of offending commonly referred to as ‘street grooming’ or ‘grooming gangs’. Group-based CSE has been the subject of major investigations, attracting significant public concern and highlighting shocking state failures that have caused untold hurt to victims, their families and communities.

Before 2010, the evidence on the nature of group-based child sexual exploitation came from a small number of significant cases. Over the last decade, there has been a shift in public understanding and recognition of child sexual abuse, coupled with a surge in law enforcement activity. Investigations into group-based child sexual exploitation in Telford, Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol, Newcastle, North Wales and other parts of the country have attracted considerable media and public interest. These high-profile cases have brought the issue of sexual exploitation of children by groups out of the shadows, although there is still much more work to do to fully understand this form of offending, given significant underreporting.

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Key Findings

All forms of child sexual abuse are under-reported and the evidence on which we base these findings is limited to the cases we know about. Given that the majority of people who are sexually abused do not tell anyone at the time and that some disclosures are not recorded, we are aware that there are aspects Group-based Child Sexual Exploitation: Characteristics of Offending and dimensions to this kind of offending that are not covered in the literature or in any of the case studies we have considered.

Based on what we do know, the characteristics of offenders in group-based CSE include that they are predominantly but not exclusively male and are often older than sexual offenders in street gangs, but younger than lone child sexual offenders. In many cases, offenders are under the age of thirty, but in some cases, they are much older.

A number of high-profile cases – including the offending in Rotherham investigated by Professor Alexis Jay, the Rochdale group convicted as a result of Operation Span, and convictions in Telford – have mainly involved men of Pakistani ethnicity. Beyond specific high-profile cases, the academic literature highlights significant limitations to what can be said about links between ethnicity and this form of offending. Research has found that group-based CSE offenders are most commonly White. Some studies suggest an over-representation of Black and Asian offenders relative to the demographics of national populations. However, it is not possible to conclude that this is representative of all group-based CSE offending. This is due to issues such as data quality problems, the way the samples were selected in studies, and the potential for bias and inaccuracies in the way that ethnicity data is collected. During our conversations with police forces, we have found that in the operations reflected, offender groups come from diverse backgrounds, with each group being broadly ethnically homogenous. However, there are cases where offenders within groups come from different backgrounds.

Motivations differ between offenders, but a sexual interest in children is not always the predominant motive. Financial gain and a desire for sexual gratification are common motives and misogyny and disregard for women and girls may further enable the abuse. The group dynamic can have a role in creating an environment in which offenders believe they can act with impunity, in exacerbating disregard for victims, and in drawing others into offending behaviour. Investigators told us that they believe offenders may seek to distance themselves from their victims to reduce their inhibition to offending. This could include ‘othering’ people, either in relation to the fact that they are from a different community or in relation to their gender, where misogynistic attitudes are at play.

Offender networks tend to be loosely interconnected, with some members more central to the group and others more peripheral. Some groups are more tightly connected. Networks tend to be based on pre-existing social connections, including work and family.

There is no common structure to offender networks and modus operandi vary. Some frequent elements of offending include: initiating contact with victims in the shared local area; grooming the victims and significant adults (such as parents) into believing the victim is in a legitimate relationship with the offender (the so-called ‘boyfriend’ model); and the use of parties, drugs and alcohol to reduce victims’ resistance and willingness to report. Abuse often takes place in private or commercial locations, but it has also been seen to take place in public spaces.

This kind of abuse can and will happen when groups of (largely) men have access to potential victims in circumstances where they feel able to act with impunity, and where the group dynamic means perpetrators both give each other ‘permission’ and spur one another on to greater depravity and harm. This can happen anywhere. The precise nature of the abuse will vary from one instance to the next, shaped by the specific context and by the attitudes of the perpetrators.

The Government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy will set out what we are doing at a national level to tackle group-based child sexual exploitation, as well as all other forms of child sexual abuse, by preventing and tackling offending, protecting children and young people and supporting victims and survivors to rebuild their lives.

Group-based Child Sexual Exploitation – Characteristics of Offending