Friday, July 19

Children enslaved by UK drug gangs



Children as young as seven are being targeted for grooming, violence and exploitation by drug gangs enslaving them into criminality, says a report from the Children’s Society.

The charity says the main age bracket for criminal exploitation of children is 14 to 17, but warns the age at which youngsters are being targeted for grooming is getting younger. “There is evidence that primary school age children as young as seven are targeted,” states the report.

There can be a lack of recognition of criminal exploitation of younger children and so opportunities to protect under-10s can be missed, it added.

The report focuses on the criminal exploitation of children, best known via the county lines tactic, whereby drug gangs use children to break into new markets.

Children routinely suffer violence and threats of harm to themselves or loved ones, and sexual exploitation, to enforce compliance. Grooming involves physical and emotional exploitation of children from all backgrounds, mostly deprived or troubled, but also some from private schools, the report says.

Criminals change their tactics as police and the authorities become aware of their operations, the report says, for example by introducing “shift work” for the children under their control so they are missing for less time and less likely to arouse suspicion.

The Children’s Society is calling for changes in law and policy and more resources to counter the threat, saying all children caught up in activities such as county lines operations should not be criminalised and should be treated as victims.

The report is based on the charity’s own case studies, and freedom of information requests to police and local councils, which reveal inadequate information about the scale of the exploitation of children as well as drastically varying levels of awareness and resources in different areas.

The report says: 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.

The report cites as an indication of the scale of the problem large rises in the number of children being trafficked to sell drugs near their homes, which has has nearly doubled, from 69 in 2015-16, to 132 in 2017-18 across 11 out of 41 police forces.

Criminal exploitation was the primary type of slavery uncovered in 370 police operations in April 2019, an increase of 1,956% from 18 operations in April 2017, the report says.

The number of children affected is believed to run into the tens of thousands, with a Children’s Society survey finding 40% of police officers believe child exploitation has been taking place in their area for five years.

A Manchester deputy headteacher, cited in the report, said teenagers were helping groom primary school children, with 10-year-olds being picked up after school by 14-year-olds, who in turn were involved with older teenagers, amounting to a web of exploitation cascading down the different ages of children.

Children start with smaller tasks, such as stealing from a shop, to show loyalty, and then the scale of criminality they are coerced into escalates.

One method of ensuring compliance is putting the child into “bondage” by faking a debt. The report says: “When on the periphery of the criminal group, they may be asked to carry or hold something of value as a sign of trust.

At this point, the young person will be robbed or jumped and unable to pay or give the item back, placing them in debt with the perpetrator. Unbeknownst to the young person these robberies are often contrived by the criminal groups as a way of debt bondage.

Children are made to insert packages into their own body cavities and then trafficked by the criminal group to the end marketplace.

The report warns criminals change their tactics: “We heard reports of children acting out in school so that they were excluded to be able to attend a shift the fear of repercussion for not complying with their exploiter greater than that within school.

We had a case where the young female would go to school not in the correct uniform so school would send her home without informing the parents and then her exploitation would take place from going home from school to home.

The report adds: These young people have been groomed, been told not to trust professionals, been told not to talk, will be silenced through threats of violence, death, sexual violence. We’ve worked with young people who have been raped, who have been forced to commit sexual acts.

The report says criminals use Snapchat or geo-tracking apps to monitor children they have enslaved.

A youth worker quoted in the report told of battling against the odds to help children: You work behind the tide every single day.

As soon as you think that you’ve understood something … it’s changed. And because of the level of violence that’s perpetrated towards our children, the fear and the threat that they live with makes it almost impossible for them to accept [support].

Lucy Belcher, from the charity’s Manchester-based project, which aims to disrupt child exploitation, told the Guardian most children they tried to help were aged 10 and at risk of exploitation, but some already are being exploited.

She said criminals groom youngsters, rather than adults, because they were less likely to be suspected of involvement in drugs and were easier to make compliant.

Belcher said the authorities should stop treating children being exploited to run drugs as criminals, rather than victims. I don’t think any child who is being exploited has a choice. It can appear consensual but they have been groomed and coerced into criminal activity by force and manipulation.

Her project began in January and what she has found has shocked and upset her. What I find hard is the lack of support for young people. We need to get there earlier and need to support these young people before this is happening.

The charity is calling for changes in legislation. The law should be clarified to ensure that all children who are groomed, coerced and controlled into committing crime are recognised as victims of exploitation.