Characteristics of offending
Yesterday (15 December 2020), the Home Office published two new papers relating to group-based child sexual exploitation (CSE). The first paper sets out the best available evidence on group-based child sexual exploitation. This includes the characteristics of offenders and their networks, how they operate, the context in which these crimes are committed and implications of these findings for local partners and for policy. The report draws on the second paper, a literature review which examines group-based child sexual exploitation in the community, drawing on academic research, official statistics and grey literature. It aims to assess the quality of the evidence and highlight challenges and evidence gaps in this area.
Child sexual exploitation perpetrated by groups is 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.
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 under-reporting.
All forms of child sexual abuse are under-reported and the evidence on which the paper is based 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, there are aspects 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 male1 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.
Although there have been a number of high profile cases of group-based CSE perpetrated by men of Pakistani ethnicity, it is not possible to conclude that this offence is more commonly committed by this ethnic group. It does, however, appear to be the norm that men involved in a group committing these offences come from the same ethnic group, although there are cases involving perpetrators from different ethnic 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 researchers 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.
Key insights about the nature of group-based CSE that could inform a local response include: the localised nature of offending, whereby contact with potential victims tends to take place in locations frequented by offenders (in the course of their employment and/or social activity) and where safeguards around victims are lower; the proliferation of offending behaviour through social networks and the potential role of offenders within the group in persuading or coercing others to participate; the need for appropriate multi-agency safeguarding and support for victims; and the need for consistent recording practices and information-sharing between agencies to inform local threat profiles.
Local agencies should fully understand the local context and facilitate strategic engagement between communities, agencies, businesses and charities to both understand the profile of offending and identify opportunities to disrupt it. Group offending is particularly complex and requires relentless disruption and well-resourced, victim-centred investigations. Safeguarding should also take into account the local context, identifying and building safeguards around vulnerable children, and intervening in the situations or environments in which they are likely to be targeted. Local multi-agency safeguarding partnerships are well-placed to do this in a strategic way. Victims and survivors should have access to the right support whenever and however they seek it out, and whether or not they choose to engage with the criminal justice process.