Front-line professionals ‘must get better’ at spotting signs that children are being exploited, a children’s charity has said in response to an annual assessment of county lines drug networks.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) yesterday published its fourth annual assessment into gangs that use children to smuggle drugs across county borders, a practice known as ‘county lines’.
The number of these lines has increased from 720 in the 2017-18 period to around 2,000 today, according to the NCA. The majority of the children exploited by these gangs are between 15 and 17 years old.
According to the National Crime Agency, the techniques used by drug gangs to win the trust of young people are similar to those seen in cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse.
The NCA said that often because children are flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, they do not see themselves as victims and so are reluctant to speak to law enforcement.
The agency also warned that exploitation methods continue to involve sexual abuse and exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as the threat of violence and injury to ensure compliance.
‘Tackling county lines is a national law enforcement priority. We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity,’ said Nikki Holland, director of investigations at the NCA and county lines lead.
‘Every organised crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets.
‘We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone - the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.’
Responding to the NCA’s annual assessment, Victoria Atkins MP, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, commented: ‘We know that by targeting the root causes of violent crime and intervening early we can help prevent young people being led down a dangerous path. This forms a crucial part of our Serious Violence Strategy.
‘County Lines gangs are grooming and exploiting young people across the country and it is vital that we continue to work together to arrest the perpetrators.
‘We are supporting the police and others by funding a new National County Lines Coordination Centre, which launched in September. I’m pleased that this multi-agency approach is already seeing results and is helping police forces work together to tackle a crime that transcends regional boundaries.’
Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, urged the Government to ‘hurry up’ and introduce its promised missing persons database, which will ensure information about the risks to children found far from home can be shared across police borders.
Ms Pona also said that more can be done by front-line professionals.
‘Professionals must get better at spotting the signs that children are being exploited and ensuring they get early help, including an assessment to see if they are at risk of being groomed every time they are reported missing from home or care,’ she said.
‘Too many children exploited through county lines are still not being referred to the National Referral Mechanism — the system used to identify victims of modern slavery and human trafficking — and failing to get help from an independent advocate to ensure they are supported as victims and not criminals,’ Ms Pona continued.
‘Without that recognition, more vulnerable children will continue to be failed.’