Drug gangs groom young children to run county lines

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Vulnerable children as young as 11, including those excluded from schools and education, continue to be targeted by “county lines” criminals whose drugs operations remain “highly adaptable”.​

County lines is a key safeguarding issue for schools and alternative provision. The term refers to the use of children and vulnerable adults by individuals or gangs to transport and sell Class A drugs – mainly from urban areas into market or coastal towns. Children are also used to transport and hide weapons.

A report this week from the National Crime Agency (NCA) into county lines offending in the UK warns that the high profits being made by criminals mean that their methods and practices are constantly changing as they seek to “minimize the risks they face”.

Core to this risk avoidance is the exploitation of young people and vulnerable adults. Offenders often approach victims before the age of 11 in order to build a relationship and trust. The grooming techniques are similar to those we see in cases of sexual exploitation.

In November a report from Ofsted and other agencies warned that we must learn the lessons from past sexual exploitation cases if we are to tackle the increasing county lines threat (SecEd 2018).

The NCA report estimates that around 2,000 county lines now exist and that children aged from 15 to 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved.

Victims have common risk factors, the NCA states, including poverty, family breakdown/intervention by social services, looked after status, frequent missing episodes, behavioural and developmental disorders, and exclusion from mainstream schooling.

Children from “seemingly stable backgrounds” are also targeted by offenders, who exploit vulnerabilities such as difficulties with parents and peer groups.

The NCA report states: “Although demand for and the supply of drugs underpins county lines offending, exploitation remains integral to the business model. Offenders continue to recruit, transport and exploit vulnerable individuals, including children, to carry out low-level criminal activity essential to their operations.

“They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

“Offenders establish contact and build relationships with both male and female subjects before exploitation takes place. This means that children may have been approached before the age of 11 in some cases as offenders seek to build a relationship that they can later exploit. As such, adult victims identified within county lines offending may have been recruited and potentially exploited during childhood.”

The NCA said that the creation of the National County Lines Coordination Centre has increased awareness of these threats, resulting in improved identification and reporting.

However, the report warns that more needs to be done and that “our understanding remains incomplete, with an intelligence gap relating to the number of lines that are active or inactive at one time”.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Society is currently running a new £2.1 million Lottery-funded national Disrupting Exploitation programme across Greater London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham.

Commenting on the NCA report, the charity’s policy manager Iryna Pona said that their practitioners encounter “the cynical grooming of children as young as 11” by gangs.

She continued: “After being promised cash, drugs and a glamorous lifestyle, they are terrified into following orders and we have sadly supported children who have been stabbed, raped and tortured, with their activities monitored through mobile phone live-streaming and tracking.

“While children in care or growing up in poverty are often targeted, these perpetrators prey upon any sign of vulnerability, and this exploitation can affect any child in any community, causing unimaginable trauma.”

She said that professionals “must get better” at spotting the signs and referring children for early help. This should include an assessment “every time they are reported missing from home or care” to see if they are at risk of being groomed.

She added that “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.

“We would urge 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.”

  • County lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm 2018, National Crime Agency, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2WNkgaS
  • Urgent need to improve our criminal exploitation response, SecEd, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2DRLINa
  • National Referral Mechanism for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery, National Crime Agency: http://bit.ly/2DPTC9C


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