CHILDREN as young as seven are being drawn into the dangerous world of “county lines” drug dealing, a report by the Children’s Society, Counting Lives: Responding to children that are criminally exploited, warns.
County-lines trafficking is the use of people to transport narcotics out of urban centres into provincial, often rural areas, to increase trade; the number of ten- to 17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs — a significant indicator of county lines trafficking — has gone up by 49 per cent outside London. The number rose from 338 in 2015-16 to 505 in 2017-18, according to police figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
In addition, the number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area almost doubled from 69 in 2015-16 to 132 in 2017-18. But the Society thinks that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. The Children’s Commissioner for England warned last year that, based on National Crime Agency estimates of the number of county lines, there could be 30,000-50,000 children involved in county lines operations in Britain.
Those aged between 14 and 17 were the most likely to be exploited, but the report, published last week, found that primary schoolchildren are increasingly being targeted.
The Society’s interim chief executive, Nick Roseveare, 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. Yet the response from statutory agencies is too often haphazard, and comes too late, and a national strategy is needed to help improve responses to 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.”
The report states that children affected by family breakdown, living in poverty, and being excluded from school, may be deliberately targeted by perpetrators. It finds that any child can be at risk of exploitation, however, and that anyone who wants to fit in, to feel less alone, or to make money can be at risk.
It found that many police forces and councils are not recording data about children who are exploited, and nearly two-thirds of councils do not have a strategy in place for tackling child criminal exploitation.
Last month, the National Audit Office warned of a growing threat from county-lines gangs. It said that there were “significant shortcomings” in the strategy to fight organised crime, caused by uncertainties over funding and bureaucracy, and a failure to get to grips with new “high priority” threats such as child sex exploitation, modern slavery, human trafficking, and cyber crime.