THE burgeoning use of vulnerable children by urban criminal gangs to move drugs out to rural communities has been condemned as “shocking” by the Children’s Society.
Figures released this week by the National Crime Agency (NCA) on the so-called “county lines” trafficking networks showed that the number of routes has increased, from 720 last year to about 2000 now. The Agency said that girls and boys aged between 15 and 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved. In a series of raids last week, 600 children were engaged for safeguarding purposes.
The Children’s Society’s policy manager, Iryna Pona, said: “These shocking findings sadly come as no surprise to our practitioners, who encounter the cynical grooming of children as young as 11.
“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 . . . causing unimaginable trauma.”
In its report, the NCA said that “grooming techniques seen as part of county lines are similar to what has been seen in child sexual exploitation and abuse, and often the young people don’t see themselves as victims. Instead, they are flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, so are less likely to speak to law enforcement. Exploitation methods continue to involve sexual abuse and exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as the threat of violence and injury to ensure compliance.”
Ms Pona said: “The progress outlined in this report in disrupting these gangs is welcome, but much more needs to be done. Professionals must get better at spotting the signs that children are being exploited and ensuring they get early help, including an assessment to see if they are at risk of being groomed every time they are reported missing. 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.”