Experts have warned MPs that the children’s safeguarding system needs reform in order to support young people exploited by county lines drug dealing networks.
At a Home Affairs select committee session on serious violence yesterday, Simon Ford, director of the Violence and Vulnerability Unit network of community safety professionals, called for national guidance around multi-agency working on county lines to ensure social workers and health professionals “take ownership” of the situation.
Challenges created by county lines demanded a restructure in the way agencies work with each other around issues that might previously have been siloed within law enforcement and youth offending services, Ford said.
While some areas – for instance London boroughs – were making good headway, others were making only limited progress, highlighting the need for wider support, he added.
“Some localities we go into are struggling with the demand and impact [of county lines],” Ford said. “Many areas are still not fully aware that it’s there, or understanding it.”
All areas, he said, needed to be aware of their young people most vulnerable to exploitation and to offer them “wraparound support”.
The warning came as a new report by the National Crime agency (NCA) highlighted the growing scale of county lines networks. County lines operations typically exploit young people, usually from large urban areas, who move drugs to other markets, where they are sold via branded phone lines, often by local adolescents.
The NCA report estimated that there were now more than 2,000 individual numbers in operation across the UK, linked to 1,000 different lines, with the majority emanating from London, the West Midlands and Merseyside.
Each line could generate annual profits of more than £800,000 a year, the report said.
Community Care recently highlighted the challenges local authority children’s services have had in getting to grips with criminal exploitation associated with county lines – which were underscored by evidence given to the select committee.
“Identifying young people who are indebted to or enslaved by a group of people is extremely difficult using traditional safeguarding tools and social work practice,” said Simon Blackburn, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board and leader of Blackpool council.
Blackburn, a former children’s social worker, told MPs that within his local authority – which has the highest proportion of children in care in England – many young people involved in county lines were unknown to children’s services.
“[They were] not presenting with indicators of neglect or abuse that might trigger an inquiry,” he said.
‘Reframe abuse and neglect’
Lucy Dacey, the national programme manager of the Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation Programme, said gangs were evolving their methods to make detection of criminal exploitation more difficult.
“Perpetrators recognise that a long missing episode is an indicator of county lines exploitation, so we’re seeing children going missing for a day, distributing drugs and coming back – so they’re not technically reported as missing,” said Dacey, who called for better information sharing to track young people’s movements.
“We need to reinvent the thresholds for children’s social care involvement,” she added, highlighting the contextual safeguarding approach developed by the University of Bedfordshire’s Carlene Firmin, which looks at the wider risk factors young people face within their environment.
The approach is being piloted in Hackney, with an evaluation due to be published in March 2019. Lambeth council was this month awarded part of a £2.4 million fund administered by the children’s social care What Works Centre to place social workers within schools as part of a contextual safeguarding focus.
“We spend lots of time multi-agency working with social workers and saying, ‘Yes this child is safe at home, there is not traditional abuse and neglect, but the risk of violence for this child and family is so significant they should meet any threshold you have for intervention,'” Dacey said. “We need to reframe how we assess abuse and neglect.”
‘Support does work’
Evan Jones, head of community services at the St Giles Trust charity, which delivers specialist support to criminally exploited young people, added that social workers had traditionally been reticent to refer young people with no experience of the criminal justice system to services badged ‘gangs’.
But he told MPs the extensive media coverage around county lines had seen an effective narrative around vulnerability develop, which was changing attitudes and encouraging referrals. The trust, which has run pilot schemes in several locations, has seen a significant proportion of young people it has engaged with in Kent managing to leave county lines activity behind.
“Lots of areas have found [county lines] overwhelming – young people have been effectively groomed and terrorised by big city gangs, local practitioners don’t understand the context and can’t get through to them,” Jones said. “Our big message is that support does work.”