DH banner Health professionals need to improve their understanding on the issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE), so they are better equipped to protect victims and offer them the appropriate care and support.

That is just one of the recommendations in the Department of Health’s latest publication, The Health Working Group Report on Child Sexual Exploitation, which aims to complement and build upon the positive work already being undertaken to tackle this problem. As health services play such a large role in the lives of children, professionals can make a significant contribution identifying vulnerable young people and supporting their recovery.

It is difficult to pinpoint just how widespread CSE is, as it is to a great extent, a hidden crime. This form of sexual abuse, which involves the manipulation of young people under the age of 18 into sexual activity, in exchange for gifts, or status, often involves violent and degrading assaults and rape.

The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty against Children (NSPCC) estimates that 5 to 16 per cent of children under 16 - between 650,000 and two million - are victims. And according to figures by Child Sexual Exploitation by Gangs and Groups (CSEGG), 72% of victims are girls and 9% boys, and although the most vulnerable age is 15, there is a growing number of victims aged between ten and 14.

The impact of this include injuries from violence, drugs and alcohol problems, mental health issues, including self-harm and suicide attempts, plus and pregnancy and terminations.

The report points out that it is crucial that sexually exploited children have easy access to appropriate health services. On the positive side, victims are able to access a wide range, which supports the case for good staff training into CSE, which includes appropriate safeguarding training and learning opportunities. Other recommendations include:

* Agencies and staff working together to promote early intervention This includes making a referral and sharing information with other agencies, such as the police and social care. Only when agencies do this can risk be properly determined - then a pattern of behaviours and circumstances can be highlighted.

* Raising awareness of abuse indicators and identifying the warning signs. Health professionals need to use professional discretion and have the confidence to know when and how to share confidential information, even without consent.

* The issue of consent needs to be explored - there is evidence that many professionals do not take appropriate action as they assume many children willingly participate in sexual activity. The age of consent is 16, yet due to power imbalances in a relationship, even those over 16 may not be freely giving it.

Healthcare staff are in a good position to build trust and work with children and families, so as well as offering the victims emotional or psychological support, they can help coordinate care plans.

Download the full report at