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County lines 'no longer a fringe issue'

Children as young as seven are being exploited for county lines

Published on 11th July 2019

Seven and eight year old children are being targeted for county lines, a report has warned.

The Childen's Society report warns that ‘county lines’ is no longer a fringe issue, but a systemic problem reported in almost every police force in the country.

"Older adolescents are more likely to be recorded as having been criminally exploited, but there is evidence that primary school age children – as young as seven – are targeted.

There can be a lack of recognition of criminal exploitation affecting younger children and so the opportunity to protect children under the age of 10 can be missed," said the report.

While any child can be at risk of exploitation, some vulnerabilities place children at greater risk. These include growing up in poverty, having learning difficulties, being excluded from school or being a looked after child. Going missing from home or care is an indicator of potential exploitation and children in care go missing more frequently than other children and are more likely to be found outside of the boundaries of their home local authority.

Too often children are criminalised rather than seen as victims of criminal exploitation and given the appropriate child protection response.

However, the report warns that there is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation which means that the response to children from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country is inconsistent.

In addition, the vast majority of police forces and local authorities across England and Wales were not able to share figures of the number of children affected by criminal exploitation in their area. Around 1 in 4 local authorities responded that they collect data, but only around 1 in 5 of all local authorities reported that this data is retrievable to be shared.

Almost two out of three of the 141 upper tier authorities that responded do not have a strategy in place to respond to child criminal exploitation and county lines.

The report calls for the law to be clarified to ensure that all children who are groomed, coerced and controlled into committing crime are recognised as victims of exploitation.

Further, statutory agencies should have access to appropriate resources to identify and support victims of child criminal exploitation. The Department for Education and Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government should urgently address the shortfall in children’s social care funding, which is set to reach £3.1billion by 2024/25. Reinvestment in children’s services should go on preventative services and early intervention, including youth services.

The introduction of new local safeguarding partnerships should be seen as an opportunity to ensure multi-agency arrangements are structured in a way to identify and respond to child criminal exploitation, the report urges.

It concludes that data collection and recording around child criminal exploitation should be improved to ensure more accurate understanding of scale and prevalence, and the effectiveness of interventions.

"This report is a call to action for professionals to recognise child criminal exploitation and provide a coordinated safeguarding response. Child criminal exploitation is a complex problem that requires a joined-up approach from statutory and non-statutory agencies, and accurate sharing of intelligence and recording of concerns facing children," the report concludes.

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