Urgent need to improve our criminal exploitation response

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

We do not yet fully understand the scale or level of risk to children in terms of “county lines” drug-running and other criminal exploitation.

Furthermore, we need to learn the lessons from past sexual exploitation cases if the agencies involved are to respond effectively.

The warning has come in a joint report from Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and HM Inspectorate of Probation.

It also warns that all children, and not just the most vulnerable, are at risk of criminal exploitation – a risk that should not be underestimated.

It says that while the most vulnerable are obvious targets for gangs, there are examples of private school children being groomed too.

County lines activity is when individuals or gangs use children and vulnerable adults 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.

The report states: “There is a real need for urgency in this work. In these inspections, we found that there were children who were criminally and sexually exploited in all the areas visited. We found that some agencies were identifying risks to children and responding well to those children who were being criminally exploited.

“However, some agencies were too late in recognising the scale or the extent of the problem in their local area. For some children, this meant that risk was not addressed quickly enough.”

The report covers all agencies, including police and social care, but there is a key role identified for schools.

It states: “Schools and colleges are essential partners in the whole-system approach. Some schools are working hard to understand, reduce and prevent the risks of county lines. However, this awareness needs to be developed and supported across the country.

“There are well-documented links between children missing education and safeguarding risks, including the risk of exploitation. Even being absent from school for a short time, such as being missing for part of the school day, can increase the risk of both sexual and criminal exploitation.”

The report also says that school nursing services are “well placed to identify exploited children”. It is essential that children can “contact professionals quickly and easily when they need help”, it adds.

As such, the report calls on all agencies to “get the basics right”. This includes clear systems at the “front door” of services that first come into contact with children.

It also calls for a “culture shift”, so that front-line staff both recognise the signs of criminal exploitation and see children as victims despite their apparent offending behaviour.

Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, raised her concerns about the scale of criminal exploitation during a speech last week at the National Children and Adults Services Conference in Manchester.

She said: “Local partners must be quick to learn and quick to act. But not all agencies fully understand the scale of the problem in their area. And regional and national networks of exploitation of children are even less well understood.

“It is also a concern that some agencies are still not looking past the behaviour of grooming victims to the root cause. If we have learnt anything from past exploitation cases, it should be to ‘see the child, not the problem’.”

  • Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2TizGC0

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