Children that have runaway or been declared missing are being used by gangs to expand inner city drug rings into county towns, according to a report by the Missing People charity and the Catch22 Dawes Unit.
Investigations drawing on research and interviews with young people have found that gangs are giving homeless children accommodation in provincial areas and then forcing them to sell drugs from houses for weeks at a time.
The new report details how young people who go missing are vulnerable to gang coercion and sexual exploitation, for reasons including debt and involvement in ‘drug lines’.
The report also provides practitioners and policy makers with advice on how to work more effectively to address the problem.
Catch22’s strategic director Frances Flaxington, said: ‘Similarly to those experiencing child sexual exploitation, the young people identified in this report are likely to be widely under-reported when missing and when they are reported, they often receive a criminal, rather than a safeguarding response.
'These are exceptionally vulnerable children and young people. They need specialist support services including strong and long-lasting relationships that help them open up and improve their lives.'
Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children, said: 'Young people being groomed to sell drugs and being isolated from help is another example of how some of our most vulnerable children and young people fall into terrible danger when they go missing from home or care.
'These children must be seen as victims, not criminals. They are children being exploited by gangs to do their dirty work. It is minimal cost for maximum gain for the gangs. We must not fall into the same trap as we did in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford where the victims of sexual exploitation were wrongly seen as making a "lifestyle choice".'