Police disruption of child sexual abuse: A scoping review

Nadia Wager, Alexandra Robertshaw Seery, Diana Parkinson

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned reportpeer-review


This report sets out the findings from a scoping review to explore the existing literature on the use of disruption measures by police forces in relation to child sexual abuse, and the effectiveness of those measures. The scoping review laid the groundwork for two national surveys of police, described in the report Police
Disruption of Child Sexual Abuse: Findings from a National Survey of Frontline Personnel and Strategic Leads for Safeguarding.

Few reports of child sexual abuse result in a conviction, meaning that many suspects remain at liberty to offend against children and young people; efforts to disrupt their circumstances and behaviours are therefore vitally important.
The term ‘disruption’ is used to describe activities which attempt to interfere with suspects’ behaviours and circumstances so they are less able to commit crime. There are three fundamental approaches to disruption,
with some overlap between them: The first approach uses direct measures to impose legal sanctions on suspects, making it harder for them to commit or continue to commit child sexual abuse. The second approach uses disruption supportive measures which disable or disrupt criminal activity in the community.
A third approach uses online measures to disrupt criminal activity taking place or being facilitated over the internet. In addition to reviewing empirical research
studies, the scoping review included material identified from serious case reviews, policy documents, practice guidelines and other sources. The search produced more than 250 relevant documents.

Key findings

Disruption measures
Most disruption measures have been developed to prevent or interfere with the
activities of individuals suspected of extrafamilial child sexual exploitation or sharing images of child sexual abuse online, rather than individuals involved in other forms of child sexual abuse. Direct measures available to police to disrupt
child sexual exploitation include:
‣ sexual risk orders and sexual harm prevention orders (SROs and SHPOs)
‣ child abduction warning notices (CAWNs)
‣ the inherent jurisdiction of a High Court
‣ civil injunctions and restrictions
‣ restraining orders
‣ non-molestation orders
‣ police powers of protection
‣ emergency protection orders
‣ recovery orders
‣ closure notices on commercial premises
‣ the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)
‣ slavery and trafficking prevention orders and risk orders
‣ secure accommodation orders (SAOs).
Measures to disrupt child sexual abuse are used mostly against extra-familial child sexual exploitation or the sharing of images online.

Initiatives, some of which involve multi-agency partners, to support the disruption of child sexual exploitation include:
‣ hotel information requests
‣ use of ‘flags’ and intelligence markers
‣ automatic number plate recognition (ANPR)
‣ taxi and private hire vehicle licensing
‣ suspect warning letters
‣ targeting ‘hotspot’ locations which may be used for child sexual exploitation activities
‣ financial investigations into suspects involved in serious organised crime.

In relation to online offences involving child sexual abuse images, disruption measures carried out at a national level include:
‣ identifying and removing child sexual abuse images
‣ informing people who try to access or share such images of the risks they are
taking, and signposting them to sources of support.

Relatively little literature has been published in relation to the use and effectiveness of measures to disrupt child sexual abuse activity.

From the literature available, it would seem that:
‣ CAWNs are the most commonly used disruption measure
‣ SROs, SHPOs and suspect warning letters are increasingly used, as are referrals to the NRM
‣ several disruption initiatives have been undertaken in identified child sexual
exploitation hotspots and through the use of ANPR
‣ there has been a huge increase in the sharing of information leading to the
removal of online child sexual abuse images
‣ there is a widespread lack of awareness or use of civil orders to protect children overseas from child sexual abuse perpetrated by UK nationals.
In terms of effectiveness:
‣ child sexual exploitation flagging has been highlighted as a core feature of
effective policing of such exploitation, and considered as good practice
‣ SAOs can be successful in breaking contact between suspect and victim
‣ despite the utilisation of CAWNs, there does not appear to be any publicly
available analysis of their effectiveness
‣ for hotel information requests to be effective, hospitality workers need training to recognise signs of child sexual exploitation and record the right information.
Some practitioners and researchers have raised concerns about the use of certain disruption measures, and particularly:
‣ notification requirements imposed by SROs on individuals who may not have been cautioned or convicted of an offence
‣ inconsistent compliance monitoring after CAWNs are issued
‣ the potential for SAOs to indirectly increase the risk of child sexual exploitation
‣ inconsistent use of flags and assessment of risk levels indicated by flags.

More generally, it has been suggested that targeted disruption efforts may in fact strengthen criminal groups and networks, or create a ‘vacuum’ in a criminal market which may be filled by more dangerous offenders.Relatively little literature has been published in relation to the use and effectiveness of measures to disrupt child sexual abuse activity.

Policing structures and multi-agency working
At a regional level within policing, child sexual exploitation is tackled through dedicated regional disruption teams (RDTs) within regional organised crime units (ROCUs). RDTs’ remit is to identify and carry out disruption activities against all forms of serious organised crime, and it may be that only a small proportion
of ROCU activity is related to child sexual exploitation.

The structure of policing child sexual exploitation at force level is varied. Some forces have specialist units undertaking investigation, disruption and victim support around child sexual exploitation, for example, while others separate investigation and disruption from victim support (with a victim-focused child
sexual exploitation team liaising between investigative officers and victims) or have no specific child sexual exploitation structure. It is now commonplace for police officers to work within multi-agency teams or observe multi-agency information-sharing protocols. Evidence suggests that this can generate information to disrupt child sexual exploitation, although research has highlighted a lack of standardised practice and identified failures to share information effectively, recognise what is important, and action appropriate responses. Nonetheless, disruption operations such as Operation Genga in Lancashire and Operation Sanctuary in Northumbria demonstrate that effective multi-agency working can support the disruption of child sexual exploitation.

Many professionals who are knowledgeable about child sexual abuse perceive disruption measures as necessary and useful tools for proactively safeguarding children and young people. Increasingly, the focus of safeguarding efforts has broadened to include attention to the context that interacts with the individual.
However, the range of disruption measures is vast and difficult to navigate, and in many cases their utility and efficacy remains unassessed. This scoping review found little published literature on the impact of most disruption measures, and none on the disruption of any forms of child sexual abuse other than child sexual exploitation and online abuse. It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of
some measures because of systemic issues in police data recording practices and systems. Furthermore, there is no standard measure used to assess suspect risk levels; this impedes the assessment of threat that should inform strategic disruption planning. Published research has identified the value of multi-agency working in disrupting child sexual exploitation, but there has been little
recognition of the important roles that other agencies and non-offending parents can play in disrupting other forms of child sexual abuse.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherCSA Centre
Commissioning bodyCentre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2021


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