Using the law to protect your child

As there is currently no specific offence pertaining to child sexual exploitation overall, parents may benefit from having an overview of the existing legislation on sexual offences.

The main piece of legislation that applies is the Sexual Offences Act 2003. You can read the Act in its entirety at legislation.gov.

The most important points to be aware of are:

  • If a child under the age of 16 has gone ‘willingly’ with an abuser, then the offender may still be prosecuted, as long as it can be proved that the suspect knew or ought to have known the child’s age.
  • Once a child reaches the age of 17, offences relating to sexual activities with a child under 16 do not apply but an offence of rape may be brought if sex has taken place without consent or the victim is incapable of consenting through consumption of alcohol or drugs.
  • The definition of ‘sexual activity’ is not limited to penetration, but can include kissing, groping, inappropriate touching and even virtual activity, such as encouraging a child to send intimate photographs of themselves via SMS or social media.

Note: The Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force at midnight on 1 May 2004. This means that any rape or assault that took place before midnight on 1 May 2004 may be dealt with under other legislation. If it cannot be proved that it occurred either before or after midnight on 1 May 2004, then the defendant may still be convicted of an offence (under section 55 Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006).

Relevant offences for tackling CSE

The relevant offences may be categorised as:

  • Preparatory offences
  • Grooming offences
  • Offences relating to pornography and prostitution
  • Trafficking offences
  • Sexual offences against a child under 13
  • Sexual offences against a child under 16
  • Offences committed by those in a position of trust
  • Offences of rape and sexual assault

Preparatory offences

Administering a substance with intent

Sexual Offences Act, section 61 (also Intoxicating Substance Supply Act 1985; Offences relating to supply of controlled drugs, Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Drugs Act 2005)

This applies where a substance is given to a child without their consent in order to deliberately intoxicate them to enable another person to engage in sexual acts with them. Examples include when an alcoholic drink has been spiked with a drug or a soft drink spiked with alcohol.

Committing an offence with the intent to commit a sexual offence

Sexual Offences Act, section 62 (also Child Abduction Act 1984, section 2)

‘Sexual offence’ has a wide definition and includes aiding, abetting, (ie assisting or planning) counselling (ie encouraging) or procuring (taking steps to ensure it happens) a sexual offence. This means that if your child is forcibly held against their will or taken somewhere against their will but manages to escape before a sexual offence is committed, an offence has still been committed.

If the offence committed includes an act of kidnapping or false imprisonment, then the defendant must be tried at a Crown Court and may be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Grooming offences

Meeting a child following sexual grooming

Sexual Offences Act, section 15

If an adult (aged 18 or over) has communicated with a child under 16 (including over the internet) on at least two occasions and communicates plans to meet up with them, then an offence is committed. It is not necessary for the adult to set off on the journey. The adult must intend to commit a sexual offence and must not reasonably believe the child to be over 16.

What you can do
Be vigilant about your child’s internet and mobile phone usage. Cut and paste any suspicious messages you access through their social media pages (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat) or mobile phone and store them into an electronic file, making sure you record the date and time of receipt. Alert the police as soon as you discover messages with sexual content and suggestions of meeting. Be prepared that if you hand over a computer or phone to the police, it may be several months before you are given them back, as they may be kept for evidence.

Remember: you don’t have to wait for an offence to have been committed if the content of the message shows intent of sexual activity.

Offences relating to pornography and prostitution*

Sexual Offences Act, sections 45–53

*Pace has publicly called upon the UK Government to remove all references to ‘child prostitution’ in legislation as soon as possible. It is a deeply offensive term, which unnecessarily conveys an aspect of choice onto the victim. We use the term here because it is used in the legislation but we hope this will be amended.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 amended the Protection of Children Act 1978 so that the law relating to indecent photographs now applies to children under the age of 18. In terms of paying for the sexual services of a child if the child concerned is aged between 13–18, then the offender must not reasonably believe that the child is over 18.

The offences are listed under sections 45–53 and include indecent photographs of children aged 16 to 17; causing or inciting ‘child prostitution’, controlling a ‘child prostitute’ or a child involved in pornography and arranging or facilitating ‘child prostitution’ or pornography.

What you can do

If you discover indecent photographs of your child or sexual images on their personal electronic devices (phone, ipad, laptop), or on the internet, you should contact the police immediately. They will then advise you as to whether they prefer you to bring the equipment to them, or if they prefer to send round a specialist team for collection at a later time

Indecent images

Given that the evidence may provide a direct link to the perpetrator, it is important that you act quickly, as your child may alert them that you have seen the images, giving the perpetrator time to destroy any hardware in their possession.
It is possible that your child may be being blackmailed by a perpetrator(s) in relation to the images, who may threaten to circulate them publicly. This will obviously be hugely distressing to a child (as well as to you as a parent), so it is important to reassure them that you understand that being exposed in this way feels terrible. Child victims of online abuse can quickly feel cornered and trapped, and a calm perspective from you can help de-escalate their anxieties.

As your child will likely be extremely possessive of their hand-held devices, it is very possible that removing them for safekeeping will cause an escalation in tension between you both. It may be helpful to talk through this with a Pace parent support worker.

You can also report online abuse of your child to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

Suspicious amounts of cash

If you find a suspiciously large bundle of cash in your child’s possession, the safest immediate thing to do is to photograph the money, noting date and time. You should then ask the police if they want you to hand the cash to them for forensic evidence. Again, bear in mind that seizing the cash may subject your child to an increased risk of harm, especially if the perpetrator has tasked your child with safekeeping the money. Try to ascertain the source of the money and agree that you will keep it for safekeeping. .

Trafficking offences

Trafficking within the UK for sexual exploitation, section 58

Trafficking is defined as the intentional arrangement or facilitation of a person’s arrival in the UK, exit from the UK or travel within the UK with the intention that the person concerned will be involved in sexual exploitation. Even if your child is regularly taken to the other side of your hometown, then this charge could be brought against a perpetrator, providing it could be proved that it was in order to facilitate child sexual exploitation. You can find out more about the relevant legislation by reading the Palermo Protocol and the European Convention Against Trafficking (especially Articles 10 and 12).

What you can do

If you know the locations where your child is being taken to, then you must report them missing to both your own neighbourhood force and the force local to your child’s suspected location. If you think your child is regularly being taken there, try to establish relations with either a specific CSE worker or youth team. Be prepared to encounter vastly different ways of operating between forces.

It is worth noting that each individual police force has its own IT system. Theoretically, forces should be able to share information as and when required, but there can be delays and breakdowns in communication on occasion.

The National Referral Mechanism

If your child is repeatedly going missing in different localities over a period of time, you could ask your police contact to refer your child to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The NRM is an important tool in the statutory response to child sexual exploitation and is a good way of ensuring your child’s case is escalated. This is because it requires different agencies to share all available information on your child and formally identifies them as a victim of trafficking. If the police do not agree to refer your child, you can also ask other agencies for a referral, including Local Authority Children Services, Barnardo’s and the NSPCC Child Trafficking Advice Centre.

The British Transport Police

If you believe that your child may be being taken to other districts by train, then you could ask your local police force to notify the British Transport Police. The BTP are responsible for policing the rail network and have access to CCTV footage from stations and trains. You may choose to follow this up independently by calling the BTP on 0800 405040. If you know that your child is being trafficked by rail for sexual exploitation and live near a large mainline station, you can usually find the BTP office within or close to the station premises and make a report in person.

Sexual offences against a child under 13

Rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault of a child under 13, sections 5–7

Under the Sexual Offences Act , a person can legally consent to sexual activity only if they are aged 16 years or over. But if a child is under 13 years old then in law s/he is automatically regarded as not able to consent to sexual activity. This is the case even if s/he expressed consent or believes that s/he is able to decide whether or not to consent to sexual activity. Sexual intercourse with a child under 13 is therefore automatically seen as rape.

There is a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for rape, assault by penetration, and causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity.

Causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity, section 8

This offence covers inciting a child to participate in penetrative and non-penetrative sexual acts either with the offender him/herself, or with a third party. ‘Inciting’ could include texting a child with promises of a reward for sexual activities, or suggesting a potential sexual act. It also covers an adult making a child perform a sexual act such as stripping or masturbation.

Sexual offences against a child under 16

Section 9: Sexual activity with a child; Section 10: Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity; Section 11: Engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child; Section 12: Causing a child to watch a sexual act

NOTE: These offences pertain to children under 16. However, because exploitative relationships often involve threats to the victims and/or their families, and/or the victim is often intoxicated with alcohol and drugs at the time of contact, then offences may have been committed even when the children are aged 16 or 17.

Sexual activity with a child

Sexual activity with a child encompasses sexual offences against children under 16 that involve both penetrative and non-penetrative acts. Therefore it includes penetration of a child’s vagina or anus with a penis, or with any other part of the body or object. It also includes penetration of the child’s mouth with a penis or penetration of the offender’s mouth with a child’s penis.

There is a common misconception that this offence is limited to the above only, but actually the law’s interpretation of sexual activity can include kissing, groping, inappropriate touching and even virtual activity, such as encouraging a child to send intimate photographs of themselves via SMS or social media.

Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity

If your child will not disclose sexual assault, but you find suggestive texts messages from a perpetrator about potential sexual activity, (and they are under 16), then an offence has been committed, even if you cannot prove the activity actually occurred. See page 19 for what to do if you discover sexual content on your child’s mobile or social media pages.

Engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child

This offence is committed in circumstances where an offender, for the purposes of sexual gratification, intentionally engages in a sexual activity in the knowledge that a child under 16 is present or in a place where the activity can be observed. Additionally the offender must be aware that the child is aware of the activity. So if your child witnesses sexual activity but does not disclose being coerced into the activity themselves, an offence has still been committed.

Understanding consent

Section 74 of the Act tackles the issue of consent. It defines consent as having the freedom and capacity to choose. Having the freedom to choose means being able to exercise real choice about whether to engage in sexual activity or not. In cases of child sexual exploitation, the child is often unable to refuse sexual activity because violence or threats are used against them or s/he is held against their will. So even if the child is over 16, non-consensual offences (sections 1–4) such as sexual assault and sexual assault by penetration may have been committed if the child’s freedom to choose was restricted.

Having the capacity to choose refers to the person’s ability to consent to make a particular choice on sexual activity. Therefore people with additional needs or impaired mental faculties may not have the capacity to consent. A person of any age who is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol also does not have the capacity to consent to sexual activity.

What you can do

Many parents report to Pace that their children are intoxicated with drugs or alcohol following contact with the perpetrators. Therefore, the child’s capacity to consent to sexual activity is affected even if they have voluntarily (as opposed to non-voluntarily) consumed alcohol or another substance. If anybody over 13 years of age has temporarily lost the capacity to choose whether or not to have sexual intercourse and sexual intercourse has taken place, then the defendant will have committed an offence of rape.

If your child is obviously intoxicated after suspected contact with a perpetrator, then this is a situation whereby it would be beneficial to keep used underwear. Store the underwear in a brown paper bag with the date and time clearly written on it. You should also log the date and time and symptoms that your intoxicated child presented with (eg dilated eye pupils, clammy to the touch, slurred words, unable to stand, fast-paced breathing).

Offences committed by those in a position of trust

Sexual Offences Act, sections 16–22

Under the Act, it is prohibited for any person in a position of trust to have sexual contact with any child under 18 even if the defendant claims the child gave their consent. This covers situations such as looking after a child in a hospital, care home or an educational institution and children looked after under care orders. The obvious people it applies to are teachers, clinicians and care-workers, but it also applies to anybody who provides specific services to children (ie careers advice, after school clubs, youth clubs, performance/sports societies) and anybody who is regularly involved in caring for, training, or supervising children.

The offences are:

  • Sexual activity with a child.
  • Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
  • Sexual activity in the presence of a child.
  • Causing a child to watch a sexual act.

Offences of rape and sexual assault

Rape, sexual assault and causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent, sections 1–4

Under the Act, rape is defined as penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth by a penis where the victim does not consent and the offender does not reasonably believe that the victim consents. Sexual assault includes assault by penetration and causing or inciting a person to engage in sexual activity without consent.

What you can do

If your child discloses rape or sexual assault to you, it is important to show that you believe them by listening calmly and actively and responding sensitively. Do not beat yourself up if you cry yourself – it is a natural response to witnessing your child’s distress. Once your child has indicated they have told you as much as they feel able, tell them again that you believe them. If the rape or sexual assault is recent, it is strongly advisable that you call the police, even if the child does not want you to. Remember you can also report information anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

It is also very important to make a written note of the date, time and place where your child disclosed and as much of your child’s statement as possible.

What happens when you report rape/sexual assault to the police?

Upon receiving a report of sexual assault or rape, the police usually send out a first responder called a specially trained officer (STO) to your address. The officer will take a urine sample and swabs from your child’s skin and/or mouth. No intimate swabs will be taken at this stage. If your child agrees, the police will then transport you and your child to a local Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). Taking police transport is for the best, as they will ensure no forensic evidence is lost during the journey by placing protective sheets on the seats.

If your child cannot face going to the police, then you could suggest you
visit your nearest SARC together.

If your child discloses rape to you immediately afterwards, but does not wish to attend a Sexual Assault Referral Centre or report it to the police, you could keep their unwashed clothing in a brown bag, clearly labelled with the date and time. It is worth taking the evidence to the nearest
SARC, as they usually store evidence for a number of years for use in historic cases.

Even if your child discloses rape or sexual assault some time after the attack, it is still worth ascertaining which clothing they were wearing at the time, as it is possible to extract forensic evidence even after clothes have been washed.

Regardless of whether or not your child feels able to disclose the rape, you do need to consider their immediate health needs, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.