Children as young as seven are being exploited by county lines drug gangs, according to a new report from The Children’s Society. While those in the 14 to 17 age range are the most likely to be exploited by the gangs, children of primary school age are being ‘increasingly targeted’, the charity warns.
The number of 10 to 17-year-olds arrested outside London for intent to supply drugs increased by 49 per cent between 2015-16 and 2017-18 to more than 500, while respondents to the report described seven- and eight-year-olds receiving support from the authorities. The number of children trafficked to sell drugs away from their home doubled from 69 to 132 across just 11 police force areas over the same period, figures that were very likely ‘the tip of the iceberg’, said the charity.
While young boys are most at risk, nearly one in six children referred to the National Referral Mechanism for potential victims of modern slavery are now girls. Perpetrators look for children ‘perceived as being naughty’ and who are likely to be ‘easily convinced’, as well as those excluded from school, living in poverty or experiencing family breakdown.
‘Anyone who wants to fit in, to feel less alone or to make money can be at risk,’ says the Children’s Society. The grooming process will usually start with children being asked to look after drugs, weapons or money or to keep watch, it adds, with the gangs increasingly using ‘shift’ patterns to avoid the children arousing suspicion by being missing for too long.
Many police forces and local authorities are failing to record data about exploited children, the charity states, and almost two thirds of councils have no strategy in place for addressing child criminal exploitation. It is calling for more funding to help early intervention and for the children to be treated as ‘victims rather than criminals’. It also urges the Home Office to amend the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to include the definition of child criminal exploitation.
‘This shocking report reveals how cowardly criminals are stooping to new lows in grooming young people to do their dirty work and in casting their net wider to reel in younger children,’ said Children’s Society chief executive Nick Roseveare. ‘Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection and controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear.
‘Yet the response from statutory agencies is too often haphazard and comes too late and a national strategy is needed to help improve responses to child criminal exploitation. This should mean better early help for children and training for professionals, access to an advocate to ensure all children are supported as victims, and a greater focus on disrupting and bringing to justice the perpetrators who are exploiting them.’
Counting lives: responding to children who are criminally exploited at www.childrenssociety.org.uk – read the report here