As parents or carers, you may be used to seeing changes in behaviour in children as they develop different interests, become more mature or form new friendship groups.

This is often a perfectly normal sign of kids growing up.

But sometimes a change in behaviour can be a sign that something isn’t right in a child’s life.

Police and partner agencies work all-year-round to protect children from exploitation. Children can be groomed to be used for various activities, often criminal.

It could include sexual abuse, being forced into labour, being made to transport drugs or steal from shops.

This child exploitation isn’t always obvious. But it can happen anywhere.

Detective Inspector Catherine Robertson specialises in safeguarding at Cumbria Police.

She said: “When someone builds a relationship with a child to manipulate them, this is known as grooming. It can happen both in person and online.

“Young people can be targeted at shopping centres, parks and fast food outlets. It can also happen on gaming platforms and through social media.

“Cumbria is a safe place to live. But exploitation like this can happen anywhere – and any child can be exploited.

“That’s why we’d ask all parents and carers to take the time to familiarise themselves with some of the signs that could indicate exploitation.”

Signs that could indicate a child is being exploited include:

  • Going missing from home or care.
  • Frequent absences from school.
  • Receiving gifts from unknown sources.
  • Signs they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Self-harming.
  • Committing theft or shoplifting.
  • Becoming more secretive or distant.
  • Physical injuries.
  • An extra mobile phone, which cannot be accounted for.
  • Other unexplained items, such as money or clothes.
  • Signs of sexual activity, such as condoms, contraceptive pills or pregnancy tests.
  • Relationships with older people.
  • Abandoning their usual friends and social circle.

DI Robertson added: “Nobody wants to think their child could be exploited and finding out your child, or a child in your care, has been the victim of exploitation can be incredibly difficult.

“But it happens to young people of all backgrounds. Any child can be a victim of exploitation.

“Sudden changes in a young person’s lifestyle such as the signs above could be because of criminal exploitation and you should talk to them about it.”

How can you report to police?

If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 999 straight away.

If it is not an emergency, you can call 101 - or report online at: