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County line gangs change tactics during lockdown

County line gangs are increasingly targeting vulnerable children and young people in county-towns, as well as moving young people across county lines, a report by The National Youth Agency has warned.

Headline statistics reporting fewer drug-related arrests as a result of a concerted police response which resulted in arrests up and 102 county lines closed, in September 2020 could appear to indicate a reduction in county-lines, the report states. However, gang activity has not stopped and instead gangs and dealers have just changed the ways they work.

NYA CEO Leigh Middleton said: “The impact of Covid-19 has been to localise gang activities. A policing response helps close down county lines, and children’s protection services support those known to be most at risk from gangs. However, new lines open up, local dealers fill in the gaps and gangs change the way they work, targeting a new group of young people. There is more in-county grooming by urban gangs, enhanced by use of social media.”

The report highlights that:

- There is an increasing trend for gangs to target vulnerable children and young people in county-towns, as well as moving young people across county lines.

- This has been supported by increased use and diversification of social media platforms to groom different types of young people in-county and across county lines.

- There is a lack of sufficient youth services and support for young people in many of the county towns and rural areas, with a concentration of diversionary projects in the urban cities where gangs operate from.

The NYA states that established county lines have not changed significantly, year on year. Policing has interrupted and closed down some gang activity, but ‘county lines’ is a well-established business model for drug dealing, and will have its imitators. The result has been independent lines and local dealers being set up to fill the gaps left by police disruption of county lines. Increased risk of arrest, conversely, has led to debt bondage of young people facing a risk of violence or robbery by gangs and dealers, and forced to work on new lines and dangerous encroachment on rival territory, to fill the gaps, the report adds.

Some county lines have been driven underground, and new recruits have been groomed in county towns to avoid police attention. Young people continue to be identified far away from their homes and carrying large quantities of money or drugs.

Overall, the impact of COVID-19 has been to localise gang activities. Children from all backgrounds are at risk of being exploited by gangs and county lines networks. There is emerging evidence of an increasing risk to young people from more affluent backgrounds, and girls, who are less likely to be picked up by police as the stereotypical victim profile is now widely recognised.

• Dealers are using local young people as runners rather than young people from outside the area.

• There is an increasing risk to young people from more affluent areas or supported family backgrounds, in county towns, who are less likely to be picked up by police.

• There is an increase in exploitation of young women who find it easier to move around during lockdown unchallenged, while young men remain very visible.

During lockdown, gang criminal activity has been less visible, changing locations from known hotspots and removed from the streets to indoors. Young people still go missing from home, but for shorter periods and are not reported missing, switched instead to work on local drug lines to meet the local demand. Young people of relative affluence are ‘fair game’ for criminal gangs and groomed or coerced into working for gangs before they recognise the dangers, and often before parents or professionals realise what is happening.

The pandemic has seen a drop in referrals to children’s services, despite the increased risks. Around 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation have not been identified by formal services, falling through gaps in education and social care. However, once they become involved in and exploited by gang activity, it is difficult to reach them.

Social media has been capitalised on during lockdown to groom young people into county lines. Social networks and followers can be exploited even further, and grooming is not just dictated by locality.

The report recommends a whole system approach for youth work, including:

• Treatment and recovery from drug addiction for young people

• Diversion schemes with schools to help reduce exclusions, and alternative provision (AP)

• Intelligence-led interventions, embedded in violence reduction units (VRUs)

• Community outreach and street based youth work (detached youth work), in priority areas of gang-related activity

• Greater use, up-skilling and equipping of youth workers to maintain contact through social media and online services, including county and rural areas.

“Referrals from social services and schools, or school exclusion levels, have been made less reliable through COVID-19. As recruitment and drug dealing has changed and adapted, including online and in county towns, so must the response.
Detached and outreach workers know their area, and the young people in them, and are best placed to identify and respond to the changes in county lines. Open-access youth services also provide safe spaces and early help for young people in their communities, with 85% of a young person’s waking hours across the year spent outside the school-day. Yet in too many areas this universal provision is lacking,” said Leigh Middleton, NYA CEO.

The report calls for:

- A high level government strategy for youth workforce development, to recruit, train and deploy 10,000 full time equivalents, qualified youth workers alongside targets for 20,000 police officers.

- Government guidance and a clear plan for detached, outreach and digitised youth work, with ring-fenced funding, in support of vulnerable young people in county towns and rural areas.

- Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) to embed youth services in a public health approach for county lines, with significant investment in training youth workers, including safeguarding.

- Cross-boundary co-ordination between youth services, not simply a policing or social care response, building the capacity of youth and community groups for in-county support.

Leigh Middleton added: “Just as gangs adapt, so services need to. Youth services can provide a safe space in local communities and trained youth workers. Outreach and street-based youth workers know their area, and are known and trusted by the young people in them. They are well placed to identify early and support young people at risk from county lines. Yet there is a distinct lack of adequate youth provision in many county towns and rural areas. There is little or no co-ordinate between youth services across county borders.”

“By investing in youth services, not only will be we better know and support young people who are missing from the official statistics, we will stay one step ahead of the gangs by working locally to build community resilience and provide early help for young people,” he concluded.

NYA Report Between the Lines

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