Child Criminal Exploitation: The Power of Language

The Children’s Society’s updated ‘Appropriate Language: Child Exploitation’ Guide

The children’s society have recently updated the above guide.  This Guide demonstrates the need for professionals to alter the language they use when discussing child criminal exploitation. The language currently being used has far reaching detrimental implications on children’s self-perception and others’ perceptions of them. 

The impact of language

This guide emphasises the importance of the language used to describe children who are criminally or sexually exploited. The ways exploited children are described directly impacts the way others perceive them.  By improving the language we use in this context we can achive better results for child victims of exploitation.

The guide recognises a need to focus on the child’s lack of autonomy and remove the responsibility from them to the perpetrators. There has been a trend towards using adultifying language when discussing children caught up in criminal exploitation. Such language is used disproportionately against young criminally exploited Black boys and young sexually exploited girls.

The guide highlights the most commonly used phrases and provides practical alternatives that can be used instead. Examples of this include:

  • Instead of saying “involved in CSE/CCE” you can say “the child is a victim of sexual exploitation” (page 7, paragraph 2)
  • Instead of ‘has been contacting adults via phone or internet’ you should say ‘there are concerns that the adult is facilitating communication with a child’ (page 7, paragraph 1)

All of the examples move from phrases that make the child seem responsible or in control and rephrases these comments in order to move away from a victim blaming narrative.

Particular reference was made to the use of the word’s ‘slave’, ‘money mule’, and ‘plugging’. Use of such words has been referred to as dehumanising and as victim blaming or insensitive. Especially when used in contexts where a child will see or hear such terms being used.

It was also mentioned that language depicting the child as vulnerable may suggest that the exploitation results from the child rather than the surrounding circumstances. Therefore, it is important to refer to the vulnerable situation a child is in, rather than the vulnerability of the individual child.


By altering the language professionals use, we can improve the support received by child victims of exploitation. Using less judgemental language will help remove the shame and guilt that children being exploited feel and also highlight their lack of control. Shifting the language we use in these cases will also encourage appropriate safeguarding interventions by ensuring the children in question are being seen as the victims not perpetrators of offences.

Youth Justice practitioners can encourage other institutions and practitioners to see the child before the offence by being more careful with the language they use. In doing so they deepen broader understandings of the complex intricacies of child criminal and sexual exploitation.

Written by Aisha Rahal, Trainee Solicitor, Just For Kids Law