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Emerging Areas of Child Abuse and Exploitation

|News, Sexual offences , Youth crime , International and organised crime , Violent crime

Speech by Max Hill QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, to the Heads of Prosecuting Agencies Conference in Uganda, 15-17 April 2019

Good morning. It is my pleasure to join you, at my first HOPAC Conference since becoming Director last November. I look forward to productive and friendly relationships with you all, and I welcome these opportunities for us to come together in order to share experiences, to discuss the development of the law in our countries, and simply to spend time together. So, I thank you very much for the invitation to speak on a very important topic today.

Looking at the changing nature of crime is something that we at the CPS are very focused on as a whole, and the developing areas of child abuse and exploitation is just one example of how crime is changing. These changes are as a result of a number of social, economic and environmental factors and so it’s our job to be aware of these changes and ensure that we are in a position where we understand what is happening and we are able to adapt accordingly.

Over the next 20-25 minutes, I’m going to talk to you about a number of trends that we have identified in this field, which I hope will facilitate the beginning of our discussions.

  • Child sexual abuse – within this, the following themes:
    • Its facilitation online, or in the virtual world
    • Group child sexual exploitation
    • International sexual offending
    • Non-recent child sexual abuse
  • Further themes: Abuse carried out in the name of honour
  • Knife crime – gangs and exploitation
  • Forced labour and human trafficking

As I explore these topics, I would like us at the same time to consider: what should we understand by the emergence of these areas, what do they mean? And, how does the law and prosecution practice keep pace?

Child sexual abuse

Its facilitation online or in the virtual world

Unfortunately, there have always been adults with a sexual interest in children who go on to abuse them. The internet means that this child abuse is more easily facilitated:

  • The abuser can more easily contact other children. They do not have to be in their immediate vicinity. They do not even have to be in the same country.
  • They can do this anonymously, or seemingly anonymously, with the impact that this has on inhibitions and behaviours that occur online which might not happen in person. It can involve the anonymity of an online account, or the dark web, or virtual private networks to disguise the location of the offender.
  • The ability to communicate online is ultimately very easy. All it essentially requires is an ability to type a few words into a keyboard. In fact not even a keyboard, it can be on any web enabled device, which also means it can be carried out anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
  • Like it or not, we are now in a world where children themselves are more likely to be online and in places where they can be targeted, such as online platforms designed specifically for children.
  • Online abuse can be just the start. In a number of instances, online contact can be a precursor to an act of abuse in person – or the abuse can take place over the internet, via webcam. This can be by the child producing the material on request or demand, but we have also seen examples of abuse taking place over a camera on a pay-per-view basis, or by groups of offenders, live-streaming it.

What is the scale of this offending?

  • Referrals to the UK National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command has been increasing year on year, with 114,000 referrals just last year alone
  • The Internet Watch Foundation has removed 100,000 website addresses associated with child abuse
  • There are three million registered users, 5% of which are based in the UK, to dark websites associated with child sexual abuse

Sometimes the existing legal framework is adequate to tackle these emerging online trends. “What is criminal offline is equally criminal online”. Inciting a child to commit a sexual act is as much an offence as originally envisaged - in person - as it is when done online. The legislation which prohibits the making of indecent images of children dates from the 1970s - along with photography, this equally prohibits the live-streaming which I have already mentioned.

The prevention of child sexual abuse also means that the law in England and Wales criminalises acts which are merely preparatory to child sexual abuse. A person who makes arrangements to commit a child sexual offence commits an offence whether or not they ever go beyond booking let’s say travel, or a hotel: if the intention was that these preparations would facilitate a child sexual offence, the offence is already committed. In a digital era, there is often ample evidence of these preparatory acts too and current legislation around this has been shown to work.

While some law is still standing the test of time, new law has also needed to be introduced, to keep pace with the way this crime is changing. An example of this is the more recently introduced crime of “sexual communication with a child”. It could perhaps be argued that there is little need for this offence to cover conversations in person, but the emerging trend of offenders discussing sexual matters with children or sending them images online demonstrated a need for this specific offence.

These emerging areas are perhaps in part the criminalisation and detection of existing behaviours. One example with the preparatory offence is a number of online vigilantes purporting to ‘police’ the internet. They pose as children to identify potential predatory paedophiles who speak to them online.

The CPS’ legal guidance has recently clarified our position on this. An offence of making arrangements to commit a child sexual offence is an offence even if the offender is corresponding with a police officer or a vigilante. It matters not that it was impossible, in fact, to commit the offence: the act of arrangement and the intention which accompanies it is all that is required for prosecutors to proceed with this charge, to prove the offence. But an increase in online investigations means that more potential child sexual exploitation is being identified. That is welcome when the investigation is by the police; however well-intentioned, vigilantes do not observe the same safeguards and as prosecutors we are clear they should leave this work to the police, and have said so in our published legal guidance. We must continue to watch out for this sort of activity

Another example where the potential for child sexual exploitation has more recently been identified is also an example of when older legislation can be used to meet a modern challenge. In recent years more and more childlike sex dolls are being seized by the authorities, usually after importation. We anticipate that artificial intelligence and developments in technology will only increase the capacity for adults to simulate sexual encounters with children. There exist arguments that this may divert offenders from actual child abuse but there equally exist arguments that this amounts to the feeding of an addiction which may lead to offending against real children.

There is a policy decision here to be made by legislators, based on evidence, about what to do about this growing development. At present we are clear that we will prosecute the offending under older provisions concerning obscene articles: in our view, such dolls and their importation, sale or provision is obscene. The language of obscenity comes from a different era, our law was formulated in the nineteenth century in fact, but it is still the law and it is apt to meet this criminality.

Group-based sexual exploitation

The sexual abuse of children in person has also seen an emerging trend - in that investigations and prosecutions are uncovering the extent of group based sexual exploitation. The CPS’ International Justice and Organised Crime Division has had conduct of prosecutions arising out of Operation Stovewood for some years now. Operation Stovewood is an investigation into non-familial child sexual exploitation in a single town, Rotherham, in England between 1997 and 2013.

This investigation involves 1,532 potential victims, 290 of whom have been identified as survivors; 275 unidentified suspects and 148 designated suspects, 88 of whom await arrest or charge. Prosecutions are ongoing but to date 14 defendants have been convicted in a series of trials and sub-operations. In one of these, 7 defendants were convicted of 24 offences including rape and indecent assault. They were sentenced to total custodial sentences of 101 years.

There are certainly emerging lessons about how organised criminality could take place, undetected, on such a scale, which I would not wish to pre-judge, but it is clear that organised or joint sexual exploitation may in some environments take place, particularly where victims are vulnerable so that they do not go to the police, or if they do they are not always treated seriously by the authorities when they should be. I am saddened that this is the case. The importance of taking seriously the credibility and reliability of child victims is not a new issue: however, the extent to which this has been a factor in group exploitation of vulnerable victims has more recently emerged and merits scrutiny and careful consideration.

International child sexual offending

I mentioned the CPS’ International Justice and Organised Crime Division. In recent years this Division has brought several UK offenders to justice for abusing children abroad:

  • Operation Carapax saw offender Mark Frost, convicted of 45 offences relating to boys in the UK and Thailand: sentenced to 13 life sentences;
  • Operation Thereva saw offender Richard Huckle convicted of 71 offences against children aged between six months and 12 year in Malaysia: sentenced also to 13 life sentences;
  • In Operation Shoran Keith Morris received a sentence of 18½ years' imprisonment for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault against Kenyan girls.

These cases reflect the fact that UK laws have extra territorial jurisdiction to prosecute UK nationals for sexual offending abroad. They involve close international working to track down offenders, victims and relevant material needed for a trial in the UK. In the last example the CPS had a Criminal Justice Advisor in Kenya who assisted with child victims being able to give evidence via video link from Kenya. Unquestionably, international cooperation to tackle child sexual abuse can and must continue. This is how we will continue to succeed.

Non-recent child sexual abuse

A further modern trend is that increasing numbers of victims of child sexual abuse come forward - indeed, that they are empowered to do so - at a later stage in life. There are challenges in obtaining evidence in relation to non-recent allegations but where there is sufficient evidence, a prosecution is likely because:

  • The prosecution must be satisfied that a prosecution is required in the public interest: even if there is enough evidence, we must in every case also be satisfied there is a public interest in prosecuting. In the case of sexual offending there is highly likely to be a public interest in prosecuting; and
  • Prosecutions for sexual offending are not time-barred or subject to a statute of limitations.

So these cases, and the challenges of obtaining and managing non-recent material, form a far greater proportion of cases we prosecute than even a few years ago.

So-called honour-based abuse

I would now like to touch on so-called honour-based abuse. This can be defined as child abuse which occurs for a number of reasons, but commonly because the abuse is committed in the name of “honour”.

I would say here that this is an emerging area, insofar as it represents an area which we are getting better at understanding as prosecutors. An example, raised by campaigners and Parliamentarians in England and Wales recently, is a practice known as breast ironing. This is a painful practice of bringing girls’ breasts into contact with hard or heated objects (which may vary in nature but may include stones, belts, pestles and heated implements) to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts by destroying the tissue. Breast ironing is performed, particularly by family members, wishing to protect a girl from the appearance of puberty or being an adult woman in order to avoid potential for sexual interest, early pregnancy or sexual harassment or violence. There are potentially significant physical and psychological consequences and risks to this practice.

This is a new area for the CPS and one which from emerging evidence we need to understand more clearly. To date, we have not had any of these cases referred to us by investigators for a charging decision. However, that is the point about awareness: it takes time, and first communities recognise this criminality, then educational and health practitioners, and then police investigators, and prosecutors. There is no specific offence of breast ironing but our view as prosecutors is that the existing assault legislation applies equally to this form of child abuse as it does to others. It is no less an assault for the reasons given for its practice, nor because the victim is a child who, as in other cases of child abuse, may be reluctant to give evidence against family members or associates.

May I take another important example. The UK does have legislation which specifically addresses Female Genital Mutilation. Our experience is that the victims of this activity are primarily children. Here again, awareness has developed within communities, and then health and educational practitioners, on to police and prosecutors. Undoubtedly the law has a role to play in this: in 2015, the law placed a legal duty to report FGM and put in place greater measures to protect those at risk.

In terms of an emerging area of child abuse, this has been long-recognised - our legislation dates back to 1985 - but first brought to justice and eventual conviction only earlier this year. The challenges to prosecution have included whether we have jurisdiction to prosecute, whether expert evidence demonstrates FGM and identifying who was responsible. So emergence can mean social recognition of criminality, whilst the reflection of that in the criminal justice system follows quite some time afterwards. Sometimes we have to persevere in order to bring justice at last.

Knife crime

A significant political issue in the headlines in the UK at the moment is knife crime. There are increasing numbers of such incidents and increasing numbers culminate in homicide. 80% of this offending continues to be committed by those over the age of 18, but the number of offenders under that age continues to rise: and there are many recent tragic examples of young victims of knife crime too.

Where this offending is gang related it must be recognised as a form of child abuse and exploitation. The police have noted the use of social media as a grooming and recruitment tool, to build a sense of identity, of grievance, to join a gang, to carry a knife.

Tackling this will require a multi-agency approach. Healthcare, educational and other professionals will look at how to support young people with the skills and resilience to lead productive lives free from violence.

What about the role of the criminal justice system?

Undoubtedly prosecution is part of the answer. Bail conditions or custody are needed to protect society from dangerous individuals. Parliament has passed legislation to provide for minimum sentences for offenders from the age of 16 upwards who threaten with a knife or who commit more than one knife crime offence (which includes possession of a knife).

The criminal justice system however is about more than this, importantly it can assist in prevention and support the measures young people need to stay away from the abuse and exploitation of gangs and a culture of violence. We have powers to issue youth conditional cautions, to divert young people from the justice system provided they comply with conditions which are intended to remove them from this offending.

The government intends to introduce Knife Crime Prevention Orders. These orders will follow upon conviction, when the offending is too serious to be diverted, but the conditions the Orders impose have the same intention. The government intends for there to be greater powers to prosecute irresponsible sellers and couriers who provide weapons to young people. And, provided it is done in a way consistent with freedom of speech and expression, online music and videos which incite and encourage violence can be targeted.

Finally, I would add that it is clear that victims may often in future be defendants and vice-versa if we are right to recognise that we live in a culture where young people increasingly carry knives. So I would suggest that support is aimed at both where appropriate. The idea of engaging with a young victim as a potential future defendant, or a defendant as a potential future victim, requires thoughtful handling but it seems to me to be appropriate where the criminal justice system comes into contact with either to recognise this reality, and to intervene in order to make a real difference

County lines

A further example of recognising that young defendants may also be victims is what is known as “county lines”, a recently recognised phenomenon in the UK.

County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs from major cities into other parts of the UK (the counties), using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) or weapons.

Potential buyers telephone the designated number and local runners are dispatched to make deliveries via a telephone 'relay or exchange' system. The 'runners' are almost invariably children, often boys aged between14 and 17 years, who are groomed with the promise of money and gifts and deployed or forced to carry out day-to-day dealing. Runaway and missing children are also used by gangs to expand inner city drugs operations into county towns. Children as young as 11 years of age have been reported as being recruited by these highly organised networks.

Exploitation can sometimes be missed by the authorities. It can appear that a relationship between exploiter and exploited is consensual. It does not need to involve physical contact. It may be effected using technology. We must all be alert to recognise the signs.

Modern Slavery

Once piece of recent legislation available to our prosecutors to address this is the Modern Slavery Act 2015. This legislation criminalises holding a person in servitude or forced or compulsory labour and it has been used to prosecute those who exploit others as part of their drugs networks.

In April of last year two London gang members who trafficked a teenage girl to Wales to deal heroin and crack cocaine received 10 and 9 years’ imprisonment respectively.

In October of last year a drug dealer who admitted to using three children aged between 14 and 15 years old to deal crack cocaine and heroin while they lived in substandard accommodation, transporting the children, drugs and money and maintaining contact between customers and suppliers, was jailed for 14 years.

This legislation also provides for a defence to a criminal charge for a person who commits a criminal offence because they were subject to exploitation. So, a child has a defence to a drugs supply charge if they commit this offence as a result of being exploited in this way, described as “county lines”, which I have already mentioned.

The defence specifically applies where another person has chosen the child, because they are a child, to do certain acts (such as drug trafficking) and does not have to have done so as a result of force, threat or deception.

This presents a challenge to prosecutors. On the one hand, a defendant need only raise evidence in this defence and it then becomes for the prosecutor to prove the offence beyond reasonable doubt. This involves disproving matters which are uniquely in the defendant’s knowledge and there are undoubtedly unmeritorious claims to this defence, and tactical ones too, shortly before trial when the time available to investigate and disprove it is limited. Not every defence is genuine.

On the other hand, there are defendants who do not raise this defence out of fear or who do not receive legal advice about this potential defence, when they should. Investigators and prosecutors have training available to identify those likely to raise a viable defence but on any view, we remain reliant on the defendant to do so and to explain it.


In conclusion, I would like to offer some observations on these various emerging areas of child abuse and exploitation. Some represent existing criminality which is more easily facilitated by the modern world and technology (CSA: sexual communication with a child). Some represent areas which are becoming detected with increasing frequency (CSA: arranging a child sexual abuse offence). Others represent new areas of criminality about which we are now becoming aware (breast ironing) and areas of criminality of which society has become increasingly aware but which is only just being brought to justice (FGM). Finally, we can see a new and worrying intensity of existing criminal behaviour (knife crime), along with new trends in criminal behaviour (county lines).

What I want to suggest to you, in closing, is that these present a range of challenges to us all as prosecutors, namely;

  • To use existing law to reflect new ways of offending
  • To promote and use new legislation
  • To recognise, learn about and understand new ways in which criminal activity is being conducted.

And - something which tests the ability of the whole criminal justice system - to prevent re-offending, which engages our skills of judgement, and challenges the culture of our approach to defendants - thinking about how we deal with young people as victims of abuse and exploitation, even when they first enter the criminal justice system as defendants, when in fact they should be seen as victims.

I hope that all of this is some assistance to our discussions, and I look forward to talking through the various problems and issues with you.

Thank you.

Further reading

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