Looked after children being exploited by County Lines gangs

A chronic lack of suitable accommodation for adolescents in care and the absence of a national strategy to tackle County Lines drug dealing is increasing the risk of organised crime exploiting vulnerable children, new research reveals.

Dec 3, 2020
By Paul Jacques

The report by crime and justice specialists Crest Advisory has identified systemic failures to safeguard vulnerable adolescents, with looked after children disproportionately represented in County Lines networks.

Crest Advisory says the “patchwork of local responses” and a “broken care system” is leaving vulnerable children at greater risk of exploitation.

Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales, said: “This report shines a light on the devastating impact that missing out on that help can have on the life of a very vulnerable child. It also highlights what can happen when the children’s social care system fails to act as the parent it has a statutory duty to be when a child goes into care.

“While there are thousands of children who thrive and live happy and stable lives in care, we know there is a growing number of children who are entering the system in their teens who are already ripe for the picking by the criminals who want to exploit them. Often, they have been placed miles from home, moved from pillar to post, far from people who know them well and can notice the dangers.”

Ms Longfield said there has been a tendency in the past to think of ‘gang members’ as “highly dangerous gangsters” – aggressive, intimidating, violent, brash and confident.

“And of course many are,” she added. “But there are also those that gang leaders involve in their criminal activities – the runners and go-betweens, who sadly over recent years are often children. They are groomed and exploited as ‘easy’ targets, commodities who can be discarded when they have served their purpose, something we see in the vicious and ruthless world of County Lines.”

Ms Longfield said the past few months “have really brought home the vulnerabilities that thousands of children in England live with, pushing up the political agenda the need for greater support for the most vulnerable kids”.

She added: “This report is another timely reminder to those who have the power to act, of the consequences of failing to do so.”

The report was based on interviews and focus groups with police officers, child protection experts and charities, together with analysis of data from the police forces in Merseyside and North Wales,

Crest found that:

Looked after children are disproportionately represented in County Lines networks – but they were not being systematically identified by police or local authorities. Children reported missing data shows that children placed in residential care homes and unregulated settings were at a higher risk of going missing. However, the police are not consistently using county lines and CCE (child criminal exploitation) flags to identify heightened risk leading to a gap between data and operational understanding;

A growing number of looked after children are placed in care settings that do not protect them from criminal exploitation. The ‘market’ for children’s social care placements is “broken”. There is a shortage of suitable placements close to home for vulnerable adolescents, meaning they are often placed in settings perhaps hundreds of miles from home, and in extremis in unregistered, unregulated settings;

Inadequate information sharing between agencies has led to a “data desert” resulting in a poor safeguarding response for exploited children. Local authorities and police forces lack a common set of vulnerability assessment tools and CCE flags. With no centrally directed approach there is currently an inconsistent patchwork of local responses. This means that agencies are not able to share critically important information about vulnerable children in a timely manner across borders; and

The County Lines operating model has proven to be highly adaptable to police tactics. Grooming and exploitation is increasingly taking place in the ‘county bases’ – the point of sale for County Lines, rather than in the ‘home bases’, the urban hinterlands of these gangs and organised crime groups. Adaptations piloted by gangs during the first Covid-19 lockdown suggest that the most successful operators of County Lines are moving towards new models of exploitation, which will pose huge challenges to police forces in county dealing bases.

Andrew O’Connor, detective superintendent for Preventive Policing at Merseyside Police, said: “Our aim is to protect the most vulnerable in society, particularly children both in and out of local authority care. Our current focus on County Lines ensures we not only target those who prey upon and exploit vulnerable children we also have programmes with our partners that aims to prevent children being exploited and drawn into serious and organised crime, but it also offers us the opportunity to help those involved get out of the vicious cycle and divert them away from the harm it causes.”

Dep Supt O’Connor added: “Our recent work with North Wales Police in Bangor shows that our holistic approach of targeting the dealers as well as working with the vulnerable victims and users of drugs is the only way to tackle the misery drugs and County Lines causes to communities.

“We note the findings of this report and while we acknowledge that there is still work to be done, police and partners have significantly improved systems and processes over the last 12 months.”

Arfon Jones, police and crime commissioner for North Wales, said the report gives an in-depth insight into “the deeply troubling world of County Lines drugs gangs”.

“Tackling the County Lines issue is a key priority in my Police and Crime Plan because it is such a serious threat to the safety and wellbeing of our children and young people,” he said.

“We have a duty to do all we can to protect them and the report from Crest Advisory contains some important recommendations which need to be acted on as a matter of urgency. Among the biggest issues that have been flagged up is the need for return to home interviews to be conducted with runaway children as matter of course, which is something I have been calling for.

“These interviews can provide important information about why a child has absconded, as well as a clearer picture of any wider scale child exploitation issues in the area.Another major concern is the growing prevalence of unregulated care homes which should be closed down because they can be a perfect setting for ruthless County Lines gangs to recruit their young victims.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council says County Lines has evolved into a drugs distribution model, which is the catalyst for a range of criminality including serious violence, modern slavery, drug trafficking and anti-social behaviour.

“Since the National Crime Agency published its first intelligence assessment in 2015, County Lines have gone from being a little known phenomenon discussed by a small community of professionals to front page news in national newspapers, plot points in popular soap operas and the subject of documentaries and a motion picture,” said Crest.

“However, due to the lack of published data on the nature and scale of County Lines exploitation, it remains an issue that generates heat but very little light.

“Local authorities and police forces, with a few notable exceptions, do not publish data on children exploited in County Lines, neither is this data routinely collected by central government departments.

“County Lines exploitation, therefore, presents us with a ‘data desert’, and the lack of published evidence has inhibited the ability of professionals to understand and respond to the evolving threat.”

In the report, funded by the Hadley Trust and published today (December 3), Crest make six major policy recommendations to the Government:

  • A legal definition of CCE. The Government must legislate to create a statutory definition of CCE and County Lines as the basis of a new national strategy;
  • A new national strategy to tackle CCE. There is an acute need for an interdepartmental strategy jointly owned by the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to balance the current emphasis on enforcement with a safeguarding approach.
  • Fix the broken care ‘market’. The forthcoming Care Review must consider the exploitation of looked after children and support local authorities to create suitable placements for vulnerable adolescents near to their home area;
  • Contextual safeguarding must guide distant placements. When local authorities place children in care homes ‘out of area’ they should conduct thorough and continuous risk assessments prior to placements including the police in this process;
  • End the use of ‘unregulated care homes’ for looked after children. The Government must urgently implement the recommendations of their review of the use of unregulated care settings, and go further, requiring that local authorities seek ministerial permission to place a looked after child in any unregulated accommodation; and
  • Reform the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for under-18s. Local authorities in the dealing bases of county lines should assume responsibility from the Home Office as the ‘competent authority’ for NRM referrals for under 18s so they take responsibility for trafficking and slavery in their area.

Joe Caluori, head of Research and Policy at Crest Advisory, one of the report authors, said: “The failure to establish a robust national response to County Lines suggests that we are failing to learn the lessons of the child sexual exploitation grooming scandals in our response to CCE. Despite five years of coverage in the media and heightened awareness among professionals we still lack a joined up national strategy to tackle county lines, and the resulting patchwork of local responses leaves vulnerable children at greater risk of exploitation.

“Added to this, it’s clear that the ‘market’ for residential placements for the growing numbers of adolescents in care is broken, leaving vulnerable looked after children hundreds of miles from home and sometimes living in dangerous unregistered settings. The Government must address this as a matter of urgency in the coming Care Review.”

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