Children as young as seven exploited by county lines gangs
Children as young as seven are being drawn into the dangerous world of ‘county lines’ drug dealing, a new report from The Children’s Society is warning.
The report, Counting Lives: Responding to Children who are Criminally Exploited, finds 14-17-year-olds are most likely to be exploited by criminal gangs and organised crime groups, but that children of primary school age are increasingly being targeted. One respondent to a survey of police staff said an eight-year-old had been suspected of being groomed to carry drugs and one local practitioner told of a seven-year-old who was receiving support.
Criminal gangs are taking advantage of younger children but both boys and girls of all ages are at risk. The number of 10-17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs – a significant indicator of county lines trafficking - have gone up by a staggering 49% outside London with the number rising from 338 in 2015/16 to 505 in 2017/18 [i].
Worryingly, the number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area has nearly doubled from 69 in 2015/2016 to 132 (2017/2018) across 11 out of 41 police forces that responded in England, meaning these children are in very dangerous and traumatic situations sometimes hundreds of miles away from home.
The Children’s Society says these figures may be the tip of the iceberg in highlighting the scale of the issue, with previous figures suggesting that tens of thousands children are being groomed to carry drugs.
Although boys are understood to be most at risk of child criminal exploitation, the report finds nearly one in six children referred to the National Referral Mechanism – the system used to identify victims of modern slavery and human trafficking - as suspected victims of child criminal exploitation, are girls. [iii]
The report highlights that children affected by family breakdown, living in poverty and being excluded from school may be deliberately targeted by perpetrators. However, it finds that any child can be at risk of exploitation, and that anyone who wants to fit in, to feel less alone or to make money can be at risk. Researchers found that children from more affluent backgrounds and rural areas were vulnerable to exploitation.
There are increasing concerns for younger children, and the report quotes professionals saying perpetrators 'scout for children perceived as being ‘naughty’ – those who are already pushing societal expectations and boundaries or who are easily convinced – by throwing stones through windows for example’. The grooming process may start with children being persuaded to ‘keep watch’, then escalate with requests to stash drugs, weapons or money and courier drugs.
We hear from children being criminally exploited in many ways: forced to work in cannabis factories, coerced into moving drugs across the country, forced to shoplift, pickpocket or threaten violence against others. Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection. They’re being controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear.
The below is taken from a leaflet produced by the Essex Safeguarding Children Board. The full leaflet is available here.
With so many stories about County Lines and gangs in the press and on social media, no one could blame any parent or caregiver for being concerned about it – wondering what to look out for and what they can do.
County Lines – What are they?
'County Lines' refer to the use of telephone/mobile numbers circulated to users in a particular area for ordering drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine (although cannabis and MDMA are also used). The telephone number is usually operated from outside the area. This is how the group builds their brand. Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers are maintained and protected, often by gangs and organised crime groups which ‘target’ the areas, either because they have a good illegal economy (for example, a
large number of drug users) or because they have decent transport links to London.Young people will rarely say that they are running a ‘County Line’ or ‘Country Line’.
They are more likely to say that they are ‘Running a Line’ ‘Going Cunch’ or ‘Going O.T.’ (which stands for Over There, Out There or Outta Town).
'Cuckooing' is the term used to describe the practice of taking over the property of a vulnerable person or an abandoned building (sometimes referred to as a ‘Bando’ or a ‘spot). The property is then used as a place from which to run the dealers’ drugs business. It is often taken over by force or coercion, and in some instances victims have fled their homes in fear of violence.The drug dealers will target those who are vulnerable, potentially as a result of substance abuse, mental health issues, or loneliness, and befriend them or promise them drugs in exchange for being able to use their property.
What are the signs?
There are a number of behavioural warning signs that you should be looking out for:
• Repeatedly going missing for long periods of time
• Sudden rise in truancy/staying out unusually late
• Money, clothes or accessories which they are unable to account for
• Being stopped in relation to drugs –especially if this is outside your area
• Being involved in fights or disorder –again, especially if this is outside your area
• Being stopped and searched in the presence of other gang members
• Changes in behaviour, becoming fearful and/or withdrawn and/or prone to unexplained outbursts of anger
• Being secretive (more guarded than usual for a typical teenager)
• Real distancing from one or both parents/caregivers
• Carrying weapons
• Unexplained injuries (which may indicate violence from others and/or self-harming), refusing medical help
• Abusing drugs and/or alcohol
• Gangs will often have profiles on social or networking websites like Facebook or Twitter, so look out for sudden changes to their profile and/or use of slang/derogatory language.
Please note this list is not exhaustive, you should always seek advice if you are concerned
What can you do?
It is important to remember that you are not to blame, criminal groups exploit the young, the vulnerable and those that are within easy reach. No matter how confident or secure you
may feel the child in your care is, the group will present themselves as whatever is missing, or
with what the child wants or feels that they need.
However, once they have them, often their treatment of your child will change to coercion, bullying and exploitation.
For these reasons it’s important to remember that the child is just as much a victim and there
are things you can do to help stop your child from being involved or to help them get out.
Here’s some helpful tips
• Talk to your child and listen –you are looking for open, honest and non-judgemental communication without anger
• Encourage them to get involved in positive activities and to think about their future and employment
• Get involved in your child’s school activities
• Know your child’s friends and their families
• Always know where your child is and who they are with
• Help them to cope with pressure and how to deal with conflict without the use of violence
• Speak to them about the serious consequences of violent or illegal behaviour
• Help them to understand the dangers of being in a gang and find alternative constructive ways to use their time
• Keep lines of communication open
• Be aware of what your child is doing on the internet
• Look for ways of disciplining children that do not involve harshness, anger or violence
• Work with other parents and schools to watch their behaviour
• Contact local voluntary organisations that provide mentoring and other support for young people
• Talk about your child’s behaviour with their school and other parent
If you suspect your child is already involved
Remember that they may not want to talk about it or may be scared. The vast majority of the young people we work with have been victims too. It is important that they know you want to listen and support them. Make sure they know they have a choice.
Ask questions, but listen too. Don’t be afraid of confrontation, but try not to approach them with anger and accusations. Try to understand the situation from their point of view and why they have joined the gang. Ask them what you can do to help. Try to agree on what they should do next. Work with them to find solutions and choices.
Seek help from local community organisations or youth services
They can offer specialist support and programmes to help them leave the gang. (See useful contacts on back page.) Contact local support networks such as faith groups or neighbourhood police officers connected to your local school.