Safeguarding: Funding injection to rescue children as young as nine from county lines gangs

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

With more than 5,400 children aged nine to 16 having been arrested for drug offences since 2018, it is hoped that a £5m injection will help support services to rescue young people from the grips of county lines gangs.

The investment will help services to expand their reach and impact in four priority areas where county lines activity is particularly prevalent – London, the West Midlands, Merseyside, and Greater Manchester.

The money has come from the Home Office and will fund targeted support over the next three years, including rescue services which will bring young people home safely if they are identified outside of their home towns.

County lines describes drug gangs in large cities expanding their reach to small towns. Often the gangs exploit vulnerable individuals to transport substances and mobile phone “lines” are used to communicate drug orders.

Children aged from 15 to 17 usually make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved, but gangs often approach victims before the age of 11 in order to build relationships and trust. The grooming techniques are similar to those we see in cases of sexual exploitation (see Headteacher Update, 2019).

In August, Headteacher Update reported how a record number of children have fallen victim to criminal exploitation or modern slavery, something that has been driven in part by a “rapid increase” in county lines drug-dealing.

The latest Home Office data shows that 1,630 children have been referred as suspected victims of exploitation this quarter (April to June 2022). This is a 20% increase on the previous quarter and includes 813 British and 817 foreign nationals.

And in September, an investigation by ITV News found that 5,425 children under-16, including some as young as nine-years-old, have been arrested for drug offences over the last four years.

Based on Freedom of Information requests to police services in England and Wales, the investigation uncovered arrests including a nine-year-old in Derby for drug dealing, a 13-year-old in West Yorkshire for supplying heroin and cocaine, and a 15-year-old in Wales for dealing heroin.

The figures have sparked renewed calls for professionals and authorities to be vigilant for signs that a child is being exploited.

Since 2019, the Home Office county lines programme says it has shut down 2,400 lines, made more than 8,000 arrests, and engaged more than 9,500 individuals through safeguarding interventions.

The £5m will help the work of Catch22, among others, which runs a one-to-one specialist support service for young people who have been referred via safeguarding routes. It works with them to help them escape their involvement in county lines.

The funding will also support the national confidential and anonymous helpline SafeCall, which is delivered across England and Wales by Missing People, and which offers bespoke support for parents and carers. Since it was established in late 2017, the helpline has supported 480 young victims of county lines exploitation and their families.

Common signs of exploitation include children being anxious, frightened, possessing more than one mobile phone, carrying large amounts of cash, being seen with people who are older than them, and missing school. The Children’s Society has also issued guidance on how to spot the signs of exploitation (see below).

  • Children’s Society: Look closer to spot and report signs of exploitation (guidance for professionals): https://bit.ly/3Ttq5HJ
  • Home Office: Official Statistics: National Referral Mechanism and Duty to Notify statistics UK, April to June 2022, August 2022: https://bit.ly/3CJWXWQ
  • Headteacher Update: Drug gangs groom young children to run county lines, February 2019: https://bit.ly/3rC5lAE
  • ITV News: Children as young as 9 arrested for dealing drugs, ITV News investigation finds, September 2022: https://bit.ly/3M7ER3y
  • Martindale: County lines: A world of violence, intimidation and crime, SecEd, March 2020: https://bit.ly/2X3dXSC


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