County Lines – why are a growing number of children going missing?

November 20, 2018 11:51 am, Published by , Leave your thoughts

County Lines is a growing issue in the UK trapping children in a cycle of abuse. We all have a part to play in tackling this form of modern slavery to ensure children are identified as victims and given the support and opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. This guest blog from Stop & Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation (SPACE), explains what County Lines is, why children remain trapped and what businesses can do to prevent it and protect victims.

One only has to look through social media platforms to notice there is a concerning surge of appeals for missing British or UK-resident children. The eagle-eyed have noted sometimes the same children are repeatedly missing.

What is happening here?

The main reason for this abundance of missing children is grooming and exploitation; ‘County Lines’ – is a form of modern slavery whereby children are groomed and exploited by organised crime groups to transport and sell drugs around the UK. So far in 2018, the National Crime Agency has reported 1,357 children have been identified as potential victims of labour exploitation – this includes County Lines and other forms of criminal exploitation.

However, many more children remain unidentified; children as young as primary school-age are going missing in their droves, being drawn in by the false promise of easy money and status. Their education is disrupted or stops completely, and families are caught up in a vicious cycle of entrapment, violence and manipulation. The children engaged in County Lines disappear for days, weeks or months depending on the task and distance. They have no access to regular meals, washing or sleeping facilities and are on call 24/7 or working shifts with associates. They witness or experience violence and sexual abuse, and are exposed to potential infections given the drug-related environment they are existing in.

Their families are caught up in a nightmare of child entrapment and violence where all control over their children is exercised by outsiders who have groomed the children to view them as family and role models, with professionals and practitioners who should be safeguarding these victims sadly still behind the curve. Many children are arrested and criminalised, rather than being safeguarded and viewed as victims of exploitation.

It is common for gangs to stage a masked mugging of their young ‘runners’, to force them into debt bondage to work off the value of the stolen drugs. If the children ‘snitch’ or attempt to exit, they are kept in line with coercion and threats to themselves and their family. An admission of coercion will therefore never be forthcoming to parents or professionals. Indeed, the exploitation is so subtle, the children don’t recognise they have been groomed; instead describing themselves as willing participants.

Those managing to break free and attempting to secure legitimate employment face the mammoth obstacle of a lack of educational qualifications given the impact on their education, and/or a criminal record linked to their exploitation. This challenge forces many to return to their exploiters just to exist.

Breaking the Cycle

Raising awareness of County Lines is vital to ensure its prevention and the identification and protection of children caught up in this exploitation and we all have a role to play; key sectors which have an influential role to play include transport and hospitality.  At SPACE we provide training and seminars to equip professionals and organisations like the British Transport Police and public hire vehicle firms to spot the signs of County Lines and what to do if they spot a potential victim.

Furthermore, we hope as greater awareness is raised around County Lines, those exploited will not be criminalised but will have the chance to rebuild their lives through pioneering schemes such as the Bright Future programme. Those retailers who have joined are positioned to offer confirmed victims of modern slavery paid work experience and a non-competitive interview at the end. This would offer a lifeline for legitimate employment which in turn gives survivors pride and dignity to turn their backs on their past for good.

Those directly affected by County Lines, professionals and policy makers can contact SPACE for further information and support: www.bespaceaware.co.uk

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