The issue of county lines is a systemic problem, not a fringe issue, report warns.
Children as young as seven and eight years old are being exploited for county line activity, a report by The Children's Society has revealed.
The report found that 14 to 17 year olds are the most likely age group of children to be exploited by criminal gangs. However, 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.
Child criminal exploitation takes a variety of different forms. It can include children being forced to work in cannabis factories, being coerced into moving drugs or money across the country, made to shoplift or pickpocket, or to threaten other young people.
Only 1 in 4 local authorities collect data on county lines
‘County lines’ is where organised criminal networks exploit young people and vulnerable groups to distribute drugs and money across the country through dedicated mobile phone lines, often from cities to counties. However, ‘county lines’ is no longer a fringe issue, but a systemic problem reported in almost every police force in the country.
Yet only 1 in 4 local authorities responded that they collect data, and only around 1 in 5 of all local authorities reported that this data is retrievable to be shared. Police forces were largely not able to provide the number of children arrested for drug related offences who were at risk of child criminal exploitation.
There is no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation and while some guidance does exist, the lack of a consistent definition defined in legislation means that responses are variable across different services and in different parts of the country.
Furthermore, too often children are criminalised rather than seen as victims of criminal exploitation and given the appropriate child protection response.
Children missing from care are at risk of exploitation
The report outlines some key findings in terms of the grooming and exploitation of children.
- Any child can be at risk of exploitation but some vulnerabilities place children at greater risk such as growing up in poverty, having learning difficulties, being excluded from school or being a looked after child.
- Going missing from home or care is an indicator of potential exploitation. Children in care go missing more frequently than other children and are more likely to be found outside of the boundaries of their home local authority.
- Children can be targeted for exploitation through face to face interactions, or online through social media and other platforms. Criminal groups can hijack popular culture such as music videos to entice young people into criminal exploitation.
- An indicator of potential exploitation is children going missing from home or care. Children in care go missing more frequently than other children and are more likely to be found outside of the boundaries of their home local authority.
- Gender, age, ethnicity and background can all affect the way in which professionals do or do not recognise young people as at risk or as victims of criminal exploitation, which can then affect the response a child receives.
- Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation.
More children are arrested for 'possession with intent to supply Class A drugs' than 'possession' alone
It also highlights key findings in terms of children coming into contact with statutory agencies, including:
- There are no consistent ‘markers’ to ‘flag’ children who are at risk of child criminal exploitation across different agencies they come into contact with – including police and social care. These markers could include, for example, children when they go missing from home, are stopped by police, or arrested for drug related offences.
- Data on arrests of children aged 10 to 17 for drug related offences provides the best proxy data available on children exploited by criminal groups.
- Comparison of this shows that more children are arrested for 'possession with intent to supply Class A drugs' than 'possession' alone. The data shows an increase of 13% from 2015/16 to 2017/18 in the number of 10 to 17 year olds arrested for possession with intent to supply Class A drug. (This number rises to 49% if data from London is excluded).
Law enforcement often takes precedence over safeguarding
The Children's Society report warns that children and young people who are exploited by criminal groups experience a variety of responses driven by a lack of consistent national and local safeguarding strategies and procedures. It adds that a lack of a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation could be part of the explanation of the inconsistent responses from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country.
In addition, of the 141 upper tier authorities that responded to a Freedom of Information requests, almost 2 in 3 do not have a strategy to deal with child criminal exploitation and county lines. Fifty authorities said that they do have a strategy or are in the process of developing one.
Safeguarding responses are usually reactive where children are being criminally exploited. Professionals reported that many children come to attention of statutory agencies when exploitation is already present in their lives and criminal groups are controlling them to deliver drugs. Therefore law enforcement often takes precedence over safeguarding responses.
There has been an increase in the number of suspected child victims of child criminal exploitation to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) but very few local authorities collect or can provide this data. Both police and local authorities’ data on NRM referrals for child criminal exploitation is "patchy" – again possibly due to a lack of definition of child criminal exploitation in legislation. Furthermore, neither agency is required to collect and report that data.
The law should be clarified
"This report highlights a patchwork of data, understanding and responses to child criminal exploitation. The lack of consistent strategies and approaches is leaving statutory agencies struggling to keep up with organised criminal groups who are coercing and controlling children into criminality. Sadly, children are more likely to be identified when exploitation has already happened or is happening, and at a stage where they are more likely to be criminalised than to receive a safeguarding response," said the report.
The report makes a number of recommendations in a bid to try and disrupt the criminal exploitation of children. Firstly, the charity recommends that the law should be clarified to ensure that all children who are groomed, coerced and controlled into committing crime are recognised as victims of exploitation. The Home Office should amend the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to include the definition of child criminal exploitation.The Home Office should consult on a new criminal offence outlawing the practice of making a child insert and carry drugs within their bodies and this new offence should be introduced via an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
A further recommendation is that statutory agencies should have access to appropriate resources to identify and support victims of child criminal exploitation. The Department for Education and Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government should urgently address the shortfall in children’s social care funding, which is set to reach £3.1billion by 2024/25. Reinvestment in children’s services should be focused on early intervention and preventative services.
Data collection needs improving
The report also says that the introduction of new local safeguarding partnerships should be seen as an opportunity to ensure multi-agency arrangements are structured in a way to identify and respond to child criminal exploitation. New local safeguarding partnerships should undertake an assessment of how many children are at risk of child criminal
exploitation in their areas and produce local strategies to address the issues.
Furthermore, data collection and recording around child criminal exploitation should be improved to ensure more accurate understanding of scale and prevalence, and the effectiveness of interventions.
"This report is a call to action for professionals to recognise child criminal exploitation and provide a coordinated safeguarding response. Child criminal exploitation is a complex problem that requires a joined-up approach from statutory and non-statutory agencies, and accurate sharing of intelligence and recording of concerns facing children," said the report.
"This report focuses specifically on the experiences of children targeted by criminal networks to distribute illegal drugs, referred to as 'child criminal exploitation through the county lines model'. Being caught possessing or distributing drugs is of course a serious crime at any age, but where children are groomed by criminal groups they need to be recognised as victims of exploitation," the report concluded.
It is vital that government reverses years of funding cuts
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: "“This report reinforces the need to invest in local services which protect and support young people and keep them safe from the lure of gangs and county lines drug activity.
“While we think a whole, integrated family approach is the best way to reduce youth crime, the government needs to continue to fund preventative measures beyond 2020.
“Councils’ youth offending teams have an exceptional record of reducing youth crime and making a real difference to young people’s lives, but they are under huge pressure after seeing their government funding halved over the last decade.
“Children’s services are now starting more than 500 child protection investigations every day, but face a £3.1 billion funding gap by 2025. This is forcing councils to divert funding away from preventative services such as youth work into services to protect children who are at immediate risk of harm.
“To help stop young people being criminally exploited and drawn into serious crime, it is vital that government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils’ public health budgets, which need to be addressed in the Spending Review," she added.