Blog: Helping local authorities tackle the issue of county lines

WillisPalmer's Executive Consultant Philip King on how a family restoration service can help with children being exploited for county lines.

County lines continue to present an ongoing problem for already over stretched local authorities posing a huge threat to children in care.
Looked after children with obvious vulnerabilities combined with a desire to be 'loved' or 'part of a group/family' are easy prey for drug dealers seeking out vulnerable people with a view to trafficking their drugs from inner cities to rural areas in exchange for promised loyalty.

While the government has launched a National County Lines Coordination Centre to improve the UK’s response to county line drug crimes  and launched a £20m package of measures to tackle county lines the problem remains a huge issue for local authorities.
The Children's Society revealed that children as young as seven and eight years old are being exploited for county line activity. Their report found that while 14 to 17 year olds are the most likely age group of children to be exploited by criminal gangs, there was “alarming evidence” of targeting starting at primary school age, with anecdotal reports of children as young as seven and eight being exploited.

“Children of all ages are at risk and the number of 10 to 17 year olds arrested for intent to supply drugs has gone up by almost 50% outside London,” said the report.
Children going missing from care are at extreme danger of being exploited for Child Sexual Exploitation or criminal exploitation through county lines. Never have return home interviews been more pertinent in addressing this issue.

County lines falls under contextual safeguarding which aims to safeguard young people from harm outside of the home.

"Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships," said the University of Bedfordshire.

As a result, children’s social care practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra-familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices.
Problems with children being exploited for county lines are exacerbated by the fact that the large majority of children in care return home at some point - whether or not the familial issues that resulted in them entering care have been rectified. According to research by the Family Rights Group, 85% of all the children in state care return home to their family network or home communities within five years, and an estimated 92% return eventually.

This is likely to be heightened if children in care are caught up in county line activity, are fearful and seeking an exit route - and then home can be an attractive option, no matter what the problems that initiated their entry into care may be. Children seek familiar and home is always home for a lot of children.

However, while returning home to a parent or relative is the most common outcome for children in care, the most recent research indicates that a third of all children and young people who are restored to their family return back into care, thus embroiling the child in a revolving door syndrome of entering and re-entering care because the problems at home have not been addressed.

This is why WillisPalmer launched the Multi-disciplinary Family Restoration Service to tackle the root causes of problems within a family and work to address these to enable a safe return of children.

A social worker, psychologist and family support workers unite as a team to co-ordinate a package of care for families where children are accommodated under S.20 or the subject of a Care Order or Interim Care Order or children who are on the edge of care or in pre-proceedings.

The local authority refers the child and WillisPalmer and the authority hold a planning meeting that includes the child’s IRO. The WillisPalmer multi-disciplinary team create a plan for approval by children’s services. The child is consulted to ensure the child's wishes and feelings are incorporated into the plan.

Co-ordinated by the expert social worker, the team works together and the FSW provides intensive support initially to carry out observations, ensure the protection of the child, help identify change and help the family overcome initial challenges, although the FSW support should reduce over time.

The process, which is constantly reviewed, is methodical and tested throughout and therefore usually lasts for six to 12 months.

The MFR Service works on the principles of acknowledgement that the family has experienced a painful and possibly bitter struggle during the care proceedings. Parents are responsible for their children and therefore need to act with authority, knowledge and understanding. All parties need to understand that successful restoration requires time and perseverance and the child’s best interests are at the centre of the process.

The overall aim is to facilitate a successful reunification of families whereby any previous difficulties have been addressed, the child is in a safe place and thus prevents the child from entering the care system. Furthermore, it aims to end the revolving door phenomenon which is distressing and disruptive for the child and family and costly to the local authority.

While there are clear exemptions whereby children should be removed from their families for their own safety, this model offers local authorities the chance to genuinely address the problems families are experiencing - including with children involved in county lines - in a sustained, methodical, tested and reviewed process. And given that more than 90 per cent of children will gravitate home after their spell in care in any event, addressing the often complex issues within a family environment can only be beneficial to children and families further down the line.

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