A SURVEY of parents in England and Wales has found that more than four-fifths are worried about exploitation of their children by drug gangs through county-lines operations. The same figure — 84 per cent — also worry about online grooming by criminals.
A survey of 2010 parents and guardians of under-18s was carried out by Opinium for the Children’s Society. Almost half the parents (46 per cent) said that they believed that their children had been more at risk of exploitation since the start of the pandemic.
While the levels of anxiety were high, the survey, conducted during the first week of December, also found that many parents lacked knowledge about the signs of exploitation and where to seek help if they thought that their child was being exploited.
Parents thought that being online through social media and gaming presented the highest risk of being groomed; they were less aware, however, that community locations such as fast-food outlets, shopping centres, and bus and railway stations were also targeted by gangs looking for vulnerable children.
The Children’s Society is urging parents to be alert for signs of being groomed, such as bringing home unexpected gifts.
The chief executive, Mark Russell, said that he was “taken aback” by the number of parents concerned about exploitation of their children. “We know any child can be vulnerable to criminal exploitation, including county lines drug dealing, and suffer horrific threats and violence. But we were still taken aback by the numbers of parents who said they were concerned about this happening to children in their local community.
“Exploitation can wreck young lives and put children in enormous danger. Successive lockdowns have left many feeling isolated, struggling with their mental health, and worried about everything from the pandemic to family finances.
“Criminals prey on vulnerabilities by grooming young people with offers of cash, gifts, drugs, and alcohol, and friendship and status. Since the pandemic, we have seen more cases of young people being targeted online in particular.”
He said that it was worrying that many parents did not know the signs of possible exploitation — which can include anger, aggression, and not caring what happens to them — or where to go if they are concerned about their child.
“More needs to be done to raise awareness about child criminal exploitation among not just professionals, but parents, children, and the wider public, too.
“These children are still being criminalised rather than recognised as victims. But better awareness alone is not enough. Far more needs to be done to ensure professionals are able to offer the early help children desperately need before they become trapped in a cycle of exploitation and long-term support when this, sadly, happens.”
The Children’s Society is calling on the Government to include an offence of grooming children to commit crimes in its draft Online Safety Bill (News, 10 December).