Identifying exploitation

It is unlikely that someone will tell you they are being exploited. They may not even realise that they are involved in an exploitative situation until it has become very serious – grooming and exploitation are often gradual processes, with perpetrators slowly introducing the victim to new beliefs, behaviours and activities to make them seem normal and acceptable.

Instead, things that people say, their behaviour, or something about their personal or social life may make you suspect that they are being groomed or exploited. For example:

  • you may notice signs of harm, such as an injury
  • they may tell you something which suggests they were involved in an exploitative situation
  • they may be reluctant to share such information, or do so by accident
  • they may avoid sharing information about themselves or their personal or social life, indicating that they wish to hide something
  • someone else might share information to you that gives you cause for concern
  • you may have noticed one or more of these common signs of exploitation and grooming.

From observing these things you may suspect that something is not right and feel concerned, but it may be difficult to understand what is going on. And it may not be clear whether someone is being exploited.

In these situations you can use professional curiosity and respectful uncertainty. These terms refer to the need to place your experience, judgement and intuition at the heart of your work.


Being professionally curious and respectfully uncertain

Taking a professionally curious and respectfully uncertain approach will make you better placed to take appropriate and positive action to protect someone’s safety and welfare.

It will help you develop a better understanding of someone’s situation and take account their personal circumstances and vulnerabilities when assessing your concerns. It will help you identify signs of exploitation where they exist and avoid overlooking them, attributing them to other causes, or mistaking them for the ‘expected’ behaviour of a particular person or group.

To be professionally curious and respectfully uncertain you will need to:

Question why someone is behaving in a certain way. Consider what these behaviours could indicate.

Find out more about someone’s personal circumstancesAssess their behaviour in light of what you know about them and their situation.

Question the motives of anyone who is with the person. Why are they there? What is their relationship to the person? Do they appear controlling? Do they dislike leaving the person alone? Even if they appear kind and supportive, could this be a way of hiding their role in harming the person?

Recognise when someone is reluctant to provide a full or accurate account of events or is pretending to cooperate to avoid raising suspicions.

Think outside the box. Consider the person or situation from the viewpoint of other workers. What might they look out for and notice? What would they think about the situation?

Maintain an open mind. Avoid making assumptions, taking information at face value and jumping to conclusions. Take account of changing information and different perspectives. Consider if you need to adapt your views.

Ask questions and challenge what you believe to be untrue.

Notice if you or someone else starts to doubt that someone is a victim – consider the reasons for these doubts. Are they fair? It might be helpful to read more about how victims of exploitation can be perceived.

Trust your instinct and raise concerns if something about someone’s behaviour or situation does not feel right.

Think vulnerability and exploitation – be actively aware of how anyone you come across may be vulnerable and could be experiencing exploitation.


Think and acting outside of your job

For example, a professionally curious health professional who is treating someone for physical injuries would also question why these injuries had been sustained and assess the person’s wider appearance and behaviour – do they seem distressed? Are they reluctant to say how they received their injuries? Do they seem to be hiding something? Is there anything about them that raises concerns or suspicions?

If you are concerned about someone take steps action to find out more about their situation and protect their safety and wellbeing. The following pages will provide you with information about how to do so: