Traffickers and exploiters are increasingly targeting “children from affluent families” MPs were told today, as experts on county lines warned about the ever-changing strategies of criminal gangs.
Younger children than ever before are being exploited, and the problem of county lines is present in “every city, town and village,” with children even being targeted to help pay off their parent’s drug debt in some cases.
While there is increasing awareness of the issue, MPs were told that some professionals working in social care or other frontline settings are still not fully trained in how to spot the signs of exploitation.
MPs on the Education select committee took evidence on Tuesday (28 February) from four experts on the exploitation of children and county lines.
County lines is the name given to networks of drug trafficking which tend to originate with criminal gangs in major cities, who distribute drugs to smaller towns and rural areas by recruiting young and vulnerable people in those areas to carry or sell the drugs for them.
The four main areas where county lines is most active are London, the West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester, MPs were told.
Susannah Drury, director of policy and development at Missing People, said that by around 2017 “almost every police force recognised it was an issue in their area”.
She added: “We now know, it’s very much right across the country. In every city, town, village; this is an issue.”
Research by the Commissioner for England and the National Youth Agency suggests at least 27,000 people are involved in county lines, with around 4,000 of those thought to be in London, but experts stressed these figures are an estimate and the true figure is almost certainly much higher.
Poverty and a dysfunctional home life are two of the main vulnerabilities that criminal gangs look to exploit when trying to recruit young people, but experts warned that the tactics used by traffickers are changing all the time.
Rebecca Griffiths, head of the national counter-trafficking service at Barnardo’s, said: “We are seeing much younger children being exploited.
She added: “Also we’re seeing the MO [mission objective] of traffickers and exploiters changing, in regards to targeting children from more affluent families.”
Children in care face acute exploitation risks
Children being excluded from school can be a major driver in exploitation, and all forms of absence are potential indicators. Experts also highlighted social media and online gaming as key recruiting grounds for criminal gangs.
Johnny Bolderson, a senior service manager with the county lines support and rescue service at Catch22, said: “Exclusion from schools is extremely worrying because they’ve lost every single relationship that has been positive or negative in their lives completely.
He added: “I think we’ve also got serious issues with social media and grooming around online gaming is something that needs to be focused on.”
Drury said that the proportion of girls being caught up in county lines is rising, with many suffering sexual exploitation as well as criminal - although this is not unique to girls. She also told MPs that girls may be indirectly dragged into contact with criminal gangs, through a boyfriend or a family member.
“We’ve seen a couple of cases where a young woman is involved in paying off a drug debt of a family member,” she said. “They might be brought in to pay off a parent’s drug debt, for example.”
Griffiths warned that there is still not enough understanding among some professionals in care settings. She said: “We work with a lot of professionals that don’t know a child’s been trafficked - they don’t know what a NRM (National Referral Mechanism) referral is.”
The NRM is the program used to flag potential victims of exploitation including sexual, criminal and modern slavery.
Bolderson also highlighted the acute issues facing children in care who are targeted by criminal gangs. He said that when young people in care are rescued and returned to a care situation, many then run away again.
“We drop them off and leave them in safety, but they will run away unfortunately. We’re potentially putting them in an area where they don’t know, the young person isn’t comfortable, they don’t have a relationship or bond with the care setting where they are at the time, so they’re likely to run away.”
Griffiths added: “The other aspect is around the trusted adult - who is the consistent person in that child’s life? Often when you drop the child off they haven’t got that consistency and the most consistent person in their life is the trafficker.”