Taskforce warns of risk to children from ‘county lines’ gangs
Police, teachers and parents should be aware that all children, including those from well-off families, are at risk of grooming by criminal gangs running illegal drugs from cities to rural areas, according to a multi-agency taskforce investigating “county lines” networks.
The report into child exploitation and modern slavery by inspectors from four agencies – including police and probation services – said some children drawn into working for criminal gangs were being overlooked, including “affluent children attending public school”, seen as less likely to be identified as drug runners by the police.
“The scale and nature of child exploitation in England in the 21st century are shocking. The impact is devastating for the children, their families and their communities. Professionals and parents should not assume that the most vulnerable children are the only vulnerable children,” the report stated.
“County lines activity is dynamic and perpetrators will change their method of exploitation quickly, such as by targeting new groups of children to exploit in order to avoid detection.”
The report examined how agencies in Greenwich, Southend-on-Sea and Dorset were tackling county lines, in which criminals recruit children to transport and sell illegal drugs and weapons into market towns or coastal communities.
The National Crime Agency has calculated that there are more than 1,500 “county lines” networks operating nationally, including within areas of relative affluence such as Tunbridge Wells and Cheltenham.
Inspectors noted that children were forced to carry drugs in harmful ways: “For example, ‘plugging’ is commonly used, which is when children can be forced by an adult or another child to insert and carry drugs in their rectum or vagina. This is a common feature of county lines activity and a clear example of child sexual abuse.”
As well as children from affluent backgrounds, the gangs or individuals also target vulnerable older children, including those who are neglected and less likely to be reported missing by parents, children with special educational needs or poor mental health, and children in care.
Wendy Williams, from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, said frontline officers needed to avoid hasty judgments when faced with a child caught up in county lines activities.
“When officers ask the right questions – is this child being exploited? Are they at risk? – they can take the right steps to keep children safe and bring the real perpetrators to justice,” Williams said.
The report also highlighted the dangers of children excluded or absent from schools, and recommended that school leaders weigh the risks of grooming or exploitation in such cases.
“In our inspections, we found that children who were not in regular education or who were missing from school were at heightened risk. They had more time on their hands and were vulnerable to abuse,” the report said.
“This is a particular concern given the recent figures on school exclusions. It is essential, therefore, that when schools are considering exclusions they also consider the safeguarding risks to the child.”
The report’s conclusions were backed by Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools and children’s services in England.
“Once children are out of school, they are unlikely to be taught for as many hours a day as they would in a school. What happens to children outside this time? Who are they associating with?” Spielman said in comments to the national children and adult services conference in Manchester.
The inspectors were particularly concerned that exploited children moved from one region to another were in danger of being overlooked.
“In one area, we found that children’s social care teams did not have enough professional curiosity to understand the risks and needs of missing children found locally who had come from other areas. This meant that staff did not recognise the risk of criminal exploitation, information was not shared and children’s need for help and protection not adequately met,” the report said.