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Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Protecting children from criminal exploitation


Action for Children’s service to help children coerced into exploitative criminal activity in Edinburgh launched in November 2020

Action for Children has marked four years of its Serious Organised Crime Early Intervention Service (SOCEIS) in Edinburgh which helps children and young people exploited into criminal activity.

For the occasion, the charity was joined by senior members of Police Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Angela Constance MSP, and representatives from City of Edinburgh Council for a high-level roundtable.

They discussed the innovative multi-agency partnership approach which shares information and spots signs of exploitation so the charity’s specialists can intervene. During its time, the collaboration has helped divert young people away from the devastating impacts of involvement in criminality and violence as a result of exploitation. 

Criminal exploitation of children describes a complex type of child abuse where a young person is manipulated or pressured into criminal activity. These can include coercion through use of intimidation, violence and weapons to participate in the sale, storage or movement of illegal drugs, theft and burglary, and transporting money.

The early intervention initiative was first piloted in Glasgow in 2013, and following its success the service was launched across the UK in Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle and Cardiff, with funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest community funder in the UK, which helped prove the model as effective and viable. It now runs in eight areas of the UK, five of them in Scotland.

The success of the pioneering Glasgow pilot was in part attributed by Research Scotland findings to the first-of-its-kind use of ‘peer mentors’, who are support workers with a history of offending. They can relate to the young people’s experiences and provide hope and optimism for a future away from criminal activity and exploitation.

In addition to mentoring, the service works with young people to offer practical and emotional support to take steps away from criminal exploitation by addressing the vulnerabilities that may have led to children being exploited.

Preliminary evaluationon the Edinburgh site and others across the UK, highlighted the three leading risk factors for young people to be exploited:

  • Poverty – the key backdrop for exploitation with many unable to buy food, clothing or essential items like a bed,
  • emotional vulnerability –  low confidence and self-worth, and a lack of purpose and sense of belonging
  • and health and wellbeing struggles – needing help to access medical services or self-care, like keeping their clothes clean

To tackle these vulnerabilities, the services target the root causes such as teaching young people life skills (including accessing entitlements/benefits), family support, and  developing healthy relationships and social interests. This was due to the unique trusting partnership formed with peer mentors helping young people to raise their aspirations and set goals to realise those ambitions, thus unlocking their future potential.

Action for Childrens delivers the service in partnership with Police Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council, including holding a knowledge sharing agreement which allows collaborative protection of children and young people. 

With a specialist working relationship, the statutory partners now direct young people to the charity who have repeatedly not engaged in other support so need urgent help to divert their involvement from organised criminal exploitation.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs, Angela Constance MSP, said:“The report underlines the important work the Early Intervention Service does in identifying vulnerable young people and supporting them from being criminally exploited by organised crime groups.

“Disrupting serious organised crime and diverting people away from being drawn into criminality is a priority for the Scottish Government and the Serious Organised Crime Taskforce. I am grateful to our partners across the public, private and third sectors who contribute to the work of the Serious Organised Crime Taskforce and I look forward to continuing our collaborative efforts to disrupt serious organised crime.”

Speaking of the Edinburgh services’ success over four years, Fiona Steel, national director for Scotland at Action for Children, said: “Since our first pilot in Glasgow in 2012, we’ve been responding to a growing risk to and number of young people being drawn into serious organised crime, often through coercion, and the devastating effects it has on their lives.

“Publication of the Jay Review confirmed that central to how we improve our response to this issue in Scotland is by developing clear processes and procedures for the police, social work, and agencies to work together. Importantly, our success with the partnership service in Edinburgh over the past four years shows this is possible.

Our focus now is ensuring we maintain and replicate this approach more widely across Scotland to ensure children, young people and families have access to support which we hope means less lives will be destroyed and lost at the hands of involvement in serious organised crime.”



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