More needs to be done to keep children involved in county lines activity away from the criminal gangs exploiting them, according to a report by criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory. Agencies were frequently missing opportunities to respond to ‘red flags’ indicating that young people were at risk of child criminal exploitation (CCE), it says.
The report includes in-depth analysis of the cases of 13 boys, based on police records, local intelligence and interviews with staff at support agencies. Common features in the boys’ lives included domestic abuse, drug misuse and periods where they’d gone missing, along with missed opportunities to stop them being drawn into gangs.
The document is calling for a new approach, including updated police training on child trafficking, modern slavery and spotting the signs of CCE. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) needs to work more closely with the police on suspected CCE cases, it says, while local authority children’s services and other agencies also need to take more account of CCE in their adolescent risk strategies. ‘Young people who spend longer periods missing from home are more likely to be involved in gangs or carry out crimes with adults,’ it says, and should be considered at heightened risk. One of the case studies, ‘John’, had gone missing almost 100 times between the ages of 12 and 15.
The report also calls for an end to the practice of ‘exile’, where young people are placed in care long distances from where they live, and states that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for supporting modern slavery victims is failing children.
Young people involved in county lines are increasingly being recognised as potential victims of exploitation rather than simply as gang members or drug dealers, the report acknowledges, but states that the response from authorities is often of ‘poor quality’ and leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation and harm. Some – known as ‘alpha victims’ by police – may go on to groom and exploit others, while most county lines cases are also characterised by absence of clear evidence or disclosures by the young people themselves through fear of reprisals. Research last year by the University of Nottingham found that county lines activity was being characterised by increasing levels of extreme violence and sexual exploitation, including rape (DDN, July/August 2021, page 5).
‘The criminal justice system is characterised by a binary approach to individuals as either victim or offender,’ said former anti-slavery commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, in her foreword to the report. ‘The challenge of county lines drug dealing is that individuals may be found offending but are, in reality, victims. This report illustrates how difficult it can be to make that judgement and the absence of clear guidance for front line staff exacerbates that difficulty. The in-depth study of the lives of 13 boys reveals that all had been subject to trauma and damage in their young lives before they were criminally exploited. The dealers are clearly targeting the vulnerable and there appears to be very few protective factors present. A step change in the system response is required.’