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County-lines exploitation children ‘are victims, not criminals’

17 January 2020

Charity demands action to protect young people at risk


THE Government should define child criminal exploitation in law and introduce a national strategy, backed up by funding, in the fight against “county lines” drug-trafficking, the Children’s Society has said.

In a response to a government report on how the police and the National Crime Agency are dealing with the problem, the Anglican charity’s chief executive, Mark Russell, said: “Too many children experiencing horrific criminal exploitation through county lines continue to be let down by the frontline services best placed to protect them.

“These are children who may have been groomed with drugs, alcohol, or promises of status and wealth, who then face the trauma of being coerced with terrifying threats, violence, and sexual abuse to carry drugs around the country.”

The investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services identified many instances of good practice, but its report, Both Sides of the Coin, published last week, highlighted inconsistencies in identifying vulnerable people. It said that the police must recognise that children and vulnerable adults involved in county lines can be victims as well as offenders: the police have to “strike a careful balance between safeguarding victims, disrupting criminal operations, and prosecuting offenders. If the police see both sides of the coin, they will reduce both the county-lines networks’ ability to exploit vulnerable people, and the harm those criminals cause.”

It calls on the police to work across force borders and with other agencies to safeguard vulnerable people, pointing out that, when they reach 18, support levels drop: “Interviewees described a ‘cliff edge’ that is leading to a ‘lost generation’.” It also requests evidence-based guidelines on risk assessments for vulnerable people, and a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation.

Mr Russell welcomed progress made by the police, but said: “All agencies are still failing to consistently identify children at risk and share crucial information. Young people too often end up being treated as criminals rather than recognised and supported as victims. We must bring the current postcode lottery to an end, so that all children affected get a consistent response from the police, councils, and other agencies.”

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