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'Response to gang exploitation of children comes too late'

COUNTY LINES: A new report from the Children's Society says kids as young as seven are being exploited by gangs

CHILDREN AS young as seven are being exploited by county lines gangs, a new report from the Children’s Society has found.

The national charity, which works with some of the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people said that at least 46,000 children in England are involved in gang activity. Young people aged 14 to 17 are most likely to be exploited but children of all ages are at risk, the charity said.

Information obtained from the police revealed that an eight-year-old child had been suspected of carrying drugs and one local authority said it was working a seven year old victim.

County lines exploitation is characterised by organised crime networks that groom and exploit children to sell drugs around the country. The term county lines refers to gangs that transport drugs across different areas and use dedicated mobile phone lines to facilitate deals.

Young people groomed to sell drugs and take part in criminal activity in the illicit county lines trade often end up criminalised. The Children’s Society wants them to be recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation.

“Being caught possessing or distributing drugs is of course a serious crime at any age, but where children are groomed by criminal groups they need to be recognised as victims of exploitation,” the Children’s Society said.

The number of children being used by gangs to sell drugs outside their home has almost doubled from 69 in 2015/2016 to 132 in 2017/2018. Experts say these figures may only be the “tip of the iceberg”.

In its Counting Lives report, the Children’s Society calls for professionals to recognise child criminal exploitation and implement a coordinated safeguarding response.

It has criticised the current “haphazard” response from statutory agencies as too variable and often coming too late.

Among its key recommendations are for the Home Office to amend the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to incorporate a definition of child criminal exploitation and consult on a new criminal offence to outlaw the practice of making a child carry drugs within their bodies.

Nick Roseveare, chief executive at the Children’s Society, 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.”

The charity has issued resources for parents and highlighted some of the signs that a child or young person is caught up in criminal exploitation. In addition to the more obvious signs of criminal activity such as having large amounts of drugs in their possession and having unexplained money, phone or jewellery, the charity also highlighted returning home late, staying out all night or going missing; unexplained absences from school, college, training or work and becoming increasingly disruptive or aggressive as red flags.

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