Private school children are among those targeted by violent gangs to carry or sell drugs, the head of Ofsted has revealed, warning the risk posed by emerging exploitation is to be ignored at the country’s peril.
So-called county lines networks see criminal gangs use youngsters to move drugs and money from urban areas, with police leaders warning earlier this year that Yorkshire’s rural heartlands are facing a growing threat.
Now Amanda Spielman, in a speech to the National Children and Adult Services conference in Manchester, has warned that all children, including those of relative affluence, are being targeted by these ruthless criminals.
“Children from all walks of life are at risk of becoming targets,” she said. “We underestimate this risk at our peril. All children, including those in areas of relative affluence, are fair game for these criminals. We have heard of gangs targeting private school children, for example, because they are less likely to arouse suspicion.”
Every police force in England and Wales has reported some form of activity by county lines gangs, according to the National Crime Agency, and there are thought to be around 1,500 of the networks in operation in the UK.
A report from the police, education, care and probation inspectorates, published today, stressed the need to treat exploited children as victims rather than criminals. Gang targets included older, neglected children who are less likely to be reported missing, it found, youngsters in care, those not in full-time education, and some with special needs or mental health issues.
It comes after an investigation by The Yorkshire Post revealed a growing challenge within the region’s heartland communities.
Criminal gangs were beginning to focus on North Yorkshire from further afield, the county’s crime commissioner Julia Mulligan warned in June, with towns and cities including Harrogate, York, Bridlington and Scarborough targeted. Crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings, in South Yorkshire, warned this could be the biggest threat to the whole of the country. It was crucial, he added, that policing leaders did not fall into the same traps they did over child sexual exploitation.
Now Mrs Spielman, echoing his concerns, has said there must be no fear in tackling difficult conversations over risk factors such as race or religion. A culture shift is needed, she added, to recognise the vulnerabilities of young people.
“We must all be prepared,” she added. “I am very concerned that despite the hard lessons we have all learned from past failures to pick up on child sexual exploitation, similar mistakes could be being made now.”