The response from statutory agencies to ‘county lines’ drug dealing is ‘too often haphazard’, a charity warns as new report reveals children as young as seven are being exploited by criminal gangs.
A new study from The Children’s Society has found that while teenagers are most likely to be exploited by criminal gangs, children of primary school age are increasingly being targeted.
The number of 10- to 17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs has gone up by a 49% outside London with the number rising from 338 in 2015/16 to 505 in 2017/18, the report shows.
The number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area has nearly doubled from 69 in 2015/2016 to 132 in 2017/2018 across 11 out of the 41 English police forces that responded to the charity.
The Children’s Society said that these children are in ‘very dangerous and traumatic situations’, sometimes hundreds of miles away from home. They also warned this was just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
The report highlighted that children affected by family breakdown, living in poverty and being excluded from school may be deliberately targeted by criminal gangs.
However, it noted 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.
The charity spoke to a deputy head from a primary school in Manchester who said the risk of younger children at their school being exploited was a ‘growing concern’.
‘There are a couple of children we know of who are 10 and younger who have been caught up in this.
‘One boy in Year Six is often picked up after school by older boys from the area who are about 13 or 14, but we know they are also involved with boys aged about 16 or 17, so you can see there is a web of exploitation where children who are exploited are then made to involve the younger ones.’
Explaining why the younger children are used by gangs for trafficking drugs, the deputy head said: ‘They’re easy targets as they’re seen as sweet and small and because of this they don’t get caught or end up in as much trouble as older children.’
Nick Roseveare, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: ‘This shocking report reveals how cowardly criminals are stooping to new lows in grooming young people to do their dirty work and in casting their net wider to reel in younger children.
‘Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection and controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear.’
Mr Roseveare characterised the current approach as ‘too often haphazard’ and called for a national strategy to tackle child criminal exploitation.
‘This should mean better early help for children and training for professionals, access to an advocate to ensure all children are supported as victims, and a greater focus on disrupting and bringing to justice the perpetrators who are exploiting them,’ he concluded.