1. Introduction

There is, rightly, much focus on children who are victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE). However, when they reach their 18th birthday and become adults, their needs, in relation to the abuse and trauma they have experienced as children, need to be recognised by the adult services which are responsible for their care and support, in order to be able to offer them the most appropriate support and promote their wellbeing.

There are different groups of adult victims / survivors of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and organised sexual abuse.

First are those who continue to be abused by perpetrators once they turn 18, and who should be responded to through safeguarding adults processes. Second are those who are no longer being abused but disclose historic or previous CSE, which adult social care and the police have a duty to respond to if it is reported to them. Third, even when the sexual abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse has ended, many survivors will require care and support as adults, due to complex personal issues which they may suffer as a result of the trauma they experienced. These can include mental ill health, self-harm, problematic use of drugs or alcohol and interrupted schooling or college, resulting in unemployment or low paid jobs.

In addition, some adults may also be vulnerable to organised sexual abuse (OSA), being targeted for the first time as adults not as children. In particular this applies to those who have care and support needs due to learning or physical disabilities, especially if they are in residential accommodation.

The vulnerabilities of these adults must be recognised by staff who are responsible for their care and support, so they can offer them the most appropriate support and promote their wellbeing. Whilst the focus is often on girls and young women, young men are also victims too, although it can be harder for them to report their abuse which therefore remains hidden.

This chapter provides guidance to practitioners and managers working in adult care services about working with adults affected by CSE or OSA.

2. Definitions and Terms Used

2.1 Sexual exploitation

Sexual exploitation is a form of abuse. It occurs where a person, or group of people, take advantage of an adult (including those with care and support needs) to coerce, manipulate or deceive them into sexual activity for the perpetrator/s advantage. The perpetrator uses their power to get the adult to do sexual acts for the perpetrator’s own – or other people’s – benefit or enjoyment. Children and young people can also be victims (see Safeguarding Children Partnership Procedures).

An imbalance of power is at the core of the ‘relationship’ between the perpetrator and their victim, which allows them to coerce, manipulate and / or deceive the adult. Psychological, physical and sexual abuse are often used to control them, especially to prevent them reporting the abuse to family, friends or professionals.

Sexual exploitation can vary from a one-off exploitative situation between a couple for example, to organised crimes where adults are sexually abused on a large scale, including being trafficked to different places.

Sexual exploitation may also take place in exchange for basic necessities such as food, accommodation or protection or something else that the victim needs or wants.

Sexual exploitation and abuse are criminal offences. Practitioners can seek advice from the local police public protection unit or specialised sexual exploitation multi-agency team, using anonymised examples, if required.

2.2 Gangs and groups

Some perpetrators operate on their own, but sexual exploitation / abuse can also be organised and planned by criminals who are either:

  • part of a street based gang or social group and are involved in different types of criminal activity and violence in particular geographical areas and are in conflict with other similar groups. Sexual abuse and violence are just some of the crimes they are involved in, rather than their only focus.
  • groups of two or more people who are connected through associations or networks including friendship groups. Their main purpose is to sexually exploit victims.

2.3 Grooming

Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child or an adult, to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse / exploitation. This can happen in person and online. Groomers can spend considerable time gaining their victim’s trust, hiding their true abusive intentions. Their methods include:

  • giving the victim a lot of attention and making them feel wanted and loved, often through flattery;
  • being understanding and listening to them;
  • buying or giving them gifts;
  • taking them out,
  • giving them drugs or alcohol – often for the first time – and making life with them seem exciting;
  • making them believe they are in a relationship together.

2.4 Organised sexual abuse

Organised sexual abuse by groups includes:

  • repeated sexual abuse / rape by their ‘boyfriend’ and his friends;
  • being trafficked to other towns and cities for the purposes of organised sexual abuse;
  • being verbally and physically threatened / abused if they try to exit the abuse;
  • family and friends being physically threatened;
  • attempts to groom younger siblings or friends;
  • being plied with alcohol and drugs to make them compliant to the point of addiction.

2.5 Terms used in this guidance

The term exploitation is when a person gains unfair advantage over another. It is commonly used to describe the behaviour of some perpetrators in relation to adults (and children).  While it may be an appropriate term at the grooming stage of exploitation (see Section 3, Signs of Sexual Exploitation / Organised Sexual Abuse in Adults), in the most serious cases which involved rape, multiple rape, gang rape and physical violence and emotional / psychological abuse, using the term ‘exploitation’ can disguise the level of harm that is perpetrated against the victim and the seriousness of the sexual offences being committed. This chapter therefore uses the term ‘sexual exploitation / organised abuse’. This is also the approach adopted by a number of agencies, including the National Crime Agency (NCA).

3. Signs of Sexual Exploitation / Organised Sexual Abuse in Adults

The following are signs of sexual exploitation / organised abuse among adults. Practitioners working with adults who have care and support needs should look out for:

  • acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones etc without plausible explanation;
  • gang association and / or isolation from peers / social networks;
  • unexplained absences from school, college or work;
  • being excluded from school or college for unacceptable behaviour;
  • leaving home / care without explanation and persistently going missing or returning late;
  • excessive receipt of texts/phone calls, particularly when the adult will not say who they are from;
  • returning home under the influence of drugs / alcohol;
  • showing inappropriate sexualised behaviour / having sexually transmitted infections;
  • evidence of / concerns about physical or sexual assault;
  • relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups;
  • frequenting areas known for sex work;
  • concerning use of internet or other social media;
  • increasing secretiveness; and
  • self-harming or significant changes in their emotional wellbeing.

Some adults can be at increased risk of sexual exploitation. These include if they:

  • are homeless;
  • are using drugs or alcohol;
  • do not have the mental capacity to consent to sexual activity;
  • are being trafficked;
  • were sexually abused as a child.

The Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to make enquiries if there are concerns that an adult with care and support needs is experiencing or at risk of abuse or neglect, and, as a result of those needs, is unable to protect themselves. This applies, for example, where an adult discloses sexual exploitation / organised abuse or if a member of the public or parent expresses concerns about an adult. See also Section 7, Taking Action.

4. Residential Care / Supported Living

When managers have concerns that adults living in residential homes or supported living arrangements – for which they are responsible – are being targeted by perpetrators, they should undertake an assessment in relation to this specific risk to identify adults who are experiencing or at risk of sexual exploitation / organised abuse. This should include people in residential care, supported living environments, and those in the process of transition from children’s services (including child protection) to adult care / adult safeguarding.

5. Transition from Children’s to Adults’ Services

When young people who have been sexually exploited move from children’s services to adult care, it is important that their needs are clearly identified and a plan is put in place to ensure ongoing support and protection. Any support needs of their parents  / carers should also be identified and addressed. See also Transition to Adult Care and Support chapter.

6. Assessments / Risk Assessments

6.1 Listening and building relationships

Many reports and enquiries about child sexual exploitation and organised sexual abuse have found that professionals, family members and the public who were raising concerns were often not properly listened to. There are also other difficulties which prevent victims coming forward.

Victims of abuse often find it difficult to talk about what happened to them, particularly if they have been sexually abused as it will require disclosing very personal details. Undertaking assessments is e a difficult time for victims / survivors, as it involves disclosing very distressing intimate information as well as taking initial steps to form trusting relationships with the professionals supporting them.

Relationships of trust need to be built over time and staff need to be appropriately skilled in active listening to pick up on small clues or unexplained changes in behaviour, which may arise during contact with adults who are experiencing / have experienced sexual abuse. Where adults do disclose concerns about sexual exploitation/abuse, these must be ‘heard’, taken seriously and acted upon. See Section 7, Taking Action.

6.2 Consent

Issues of consent are complex, and practitioners should seek advice from their manager, legal department or specialist service where they are unsure. The police should be contacted for advice if practitioners are concerned crimes have been committed against the adult.

In summary, if an adult lacks mental capacity, they cannot legally consent to have sex (see Mental Capacity chapter). Sexual acts with an adult who lacks the mental capacity to consent is sexual assault and is a criminal offence under Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Adults with mental capacity to make decisions about their sexual relationships can still be at risk of being manipulated, coerced or sexually exploited; their circumstances may still meet the safeguarding criteria. Section 42 safeguarding enquiries or other appropriate risk management planning and processes should work with the adult towards finding ways to support them in exiting the abusive situation.

In such circumstances, the power of Inherent Jurisdiction enables the courts (the High Court) to issue directions or orders to support the adult who has capacity, but is being coerced or controlled and where fear impacts their ability to give genuine and informed consent.

If the adult indicates that they want to receive a service relating to sexual exploitation – or any other intervention related to their care and support needs – they should be given all the necessary information for them to understand what is involved before giving consent for their information to be shared with other relevant practitioners as appropriate.

7. Taking Action

Staff should follow the South Tyneside Safeguarding Adults procedures, and contact adult social care regarding any concerns. A safeguarding adults discussion / meeting – with the adult at the centre of discussions – may be needed to agree and plan action. This must involve the police whose role is to investigate crimes that may have been committed, collect evidence and present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service if relevant, for a decision on  whether it is appropriate to charge the individuals (see Safeguarding Enquiries Process).

7.1 Post-abuse support

Whether or not alleged perpetrators are charged, sexual abuse often has long-lasting effects for victim-survivors and their families. These include psychological and emotional trauma affecting relationships and future parenting abilities, to mental health and substance misuse issues. These place further stress on victims and their families and a need for health and social care services.

The provision of appropriate support to those who have suffered trauma can significantly improve their lives in terms of health and family relationships. Survivors are likely to require support and therapeutic intervention for an extended period of time.

8. Supervision

See also Supervision chapter

Services should ensure that their staff receive regular supervision so they can reflect on their practice. Staff who offer direct support to sexually exploited adults may also require further intensive training and specialist support.

Was this helpful?
Thanks for your feedback!