County lines drug dealing hit the headlines once again last month, as it was announced that more than 700 people had been arrested across the UK in a police crackdown on dealing networks.
‘County lines dealing’ is where gangs from large urban areas expand their operations into smaller towns and rural areas, sometimes crossing county lines in the process. Often gang members groom children to sell drugs, which is known as ‘child criminal exploitation’. As the drug dealers will be based in the big cities, the children are forced to transport the drugs from there to the towns and sell them, either from residential properties or on the street.
While the recent arrests were a step in the right direction, only 41 of the 700 arrested have so far been identified as possible victims of criminal exploitation and referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government body which determines whether someone meets the definition of a victim of trafficking or modern slavery.
Working as a Public Law solicitor at Simpson Millar, I see the devastating effects that criminal exploitation has on these children, as well as the flaws in our system which prevents them from getting the help they need.
Children are frequently recruited at a very young age and immediately groomed into being an active member of the gang. These children are typically the most exposed and defenceless in society, with little parental support, which makes them easier to manipulate and control. While children in local authority care are at greatest risk, we are also seeing young people from stable, financially secure families being targeted.
Vulnerable adults, such as those with learning difficulties or other disabilities, are also frequently exploited, with the drug gangs taking over their homes for drug dealing operations.
A combination of force, fear and persuasion is typically used by gang members to recruit and groom children to work for them.
Victims can get caught up in drug debts to the gang after being arrested, as any drugs that they had in their possession (often worth thousands of pounds) are confiscated by the police. These debts do not go away, even if the victim is convicted and serves prison time. Gangs instead use drug debts as leverage, pressuring the victims to work for them again upon their release. If these victims cannot repay their debts, they face the real possibility of revenge attacks, and children and vulnerable people have been beaten, stabbed, and burned with acid as reprisal. Attacks by rival gangs are also a big risk, particularly for children who are street dealing.
A key legal issue that we have identified is that these children are not recognised by social services or the police as having been exploited by the gangs, which means that they are not referred into the NRM as potential victims of trafficking or modern slavery. Common indicators of a child victim of criminal exploitation range from the obvious, such as drug dealing, to the more subtle, such as being in possession of unexplained bundles of money, expensive clothes or multiple mobile phones. In most cases that we work on, there were numerous signs that these children were being controlled, yet they were not referred to the NRM. Instead they were criminalised and even sentenced to prison time, which has a hugely detrimental impact on the rest of their lives.
A lack of training in recognising the signs of child exploitation is one of the biggest issues. The police and social services are both ‘first responders’, which means that they can refer potential victims into the NRM for consideration. Yet they are failing to exercise this power because they do not recognise the signs and persist in seeing these children simply as criminals.
Similarly to the victims of child sexual exploitation in places like Rotherham, Rochdale and Telford, these children are being criminalised and treated as wrongdoers themselves instead of being helped to escape the cycle of exploitation. If children are not given support at a sufficiently early stage they could end up in prison, following which they will feel they have no choice but to start work again for the gang to pay off their debts.
The CPS, police and social services all urgently need to amend their procedures for recognising and dealing with victims of child criminal exploitation.
Too many victims are still treated as criminals. The earlier that they can be identified and helped, the more likely it is that they will be able to live stable, crime-free adult lives.
Sarah Collier is a Public Law Solicitor at Simpson Millar Solicitors