County lines activity is being characterised by rising levels of extreme violence and sexual exploitation, according to a report by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab.
Professionals interviewed for the report described both an increase in the incidence of violence and ‘shifts in the types of injuries and their severity’.
One respondent described an increase in the number of males under 21 attending A&E after being raped, while others also noted increases in self-harm and suicide attempts among children and young people admitted to hospital.
The report, which looks at the impact of COVID-19 on county lines activities, says more and more health professionals are warning that young people are being coerced into gangs via online grooming and use of control through the harbouring of sexually explicit images, with an associated increase in self-harm among young females. While males still represented the majority of violence-related A&E admissions in connection to county lines gangs, the injuries sustained by female victims were becoming ‘more severe and sexual in nature’, with victims ‘passed around the wider network as a reward’.
Levels of county lines activity have increased exponentially in recent years, with a January 2019 report from the National Crime Agency finding that the number of dedicated mobile phone lines had risen to 2,000 from just 720 the previous year (DDN, February 2019, page 4).
While COVID-19 had not led to any reductions in county lines activity, one noticeable impact of the pandemic had been a shift from public transport to private hire vehicles, the Rights Lab document says, particularly via 28-day ‘rolling rentals’ organised online. This had led to associated increases in both ID fraud and A&E admissions as a result of accidents, police car chases and ‘vehicles used as weapons’. The increased levels of privacy associated with COVID-related visiting restrictions in hospitals, however, had meant some young people felt safe enough to disclose more about their injuries and experience of exploitation.
‘One person who I met in A&E, he had been quite heavily involved in county lines and he was in the hospital that night for trying to drink a litre of bleach,’ stated one respondent. ‘He said, “I just wanted to get out of it because this particular day, they was gang raping someone’. When he refused to get involved they beat him up and now they were after him because he wouldn’t get involved in that gang rape.’ A youth worker, meanwhile, described the injuries they’d seen as including ‘fingernails pulled off, hair pulled out, even the stabbings… whereas before COVID-19 you may have seen one or two injuries on a young person, now they will be repeatedly stabbed. So we’re talking five, six times is kind of an average amount of stab wounds.’
Among the document’s recommendations are for all A&E departments to have youth workers in place offering support to young people attending with violence-related injuries, and for criminal exploitation and county lines training to be a national requirement for people working with children, young people and vulnerable adults. Face-to-face meetings – rather than telephone or online contact – between professionals and young people should also resume as soon as possible, the document stresses.
‘These latest findings are extremely concerning – taken together with the fact that professionals’ ability to identify signs of exploitation and safeguard vulnerable young people are being hindered by COVID-19 restrictions, it is a very alarming picture,’ said research fellow in modern slavery perpetration at the Rights Lab Dr Ben Brewster.
Covid-19, Vulnerability and the Safeguarding of Criminally Exploited Children available here