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The root causes of exploitation lie beyond county lines

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LGC commentary on the phenomenon of ‘county lines’ exploitation

The ‘county lines’ business model for distributing drugs has risen up the political agenda of late following emotive headlines suggesting evil urban drug gangs are corrupting middle-class children in well-to-do areas. 

County lines, the term used when criminal gangs from urban areas expand their operations to smaller towns and rural areas, often involves the exploitation of children and vulnerable people to sell drugs.

Certain minds appear to have been focused by evidence that organised drug networks have targeted young people who don’t fit the normal profile of “feral children” of tabloid lore and are operating in areas that are supposed to be somehow immune from contamination.

Awareness of this problem appears to have been raised because it is no longer just children living in poor inner city areas who are perceived to be vulnerable, as if their exploitation and suffering was deemed somehow acceptable.

While the attention this growing problem has attracted in Westminster and beyond may have proved helpful in focusing some attention and resources, county lines is just a part of a wider and long-running scourge of children being targeted and manipulated for criminal ends.

Children have always been exploited by criminals, and children’s lives have always been adversely affected by living in areas of high crime or with family members engaged in criminal behaviour.

It is illogical to treat the emergence of county lines operations in isolation as a special case and separate the phenomenon from child abuse in general that, as always, requires a wide-ranging approach to safeguarding, support and prevention.

The disturbing recent spate of murders in London, the ongoing prevalence of gang culture and rising numbers of children coming to the attention of child protection services shows there is something much broader at play.

The range of vulnerabilities which criminals look for in potential child victims of county lines exploitation - including poverty, family breakdown, involvement with social services, behavioural and developmental disorders and exclusion from mainstream schools - can also be applied to sexual exploitation and gang membership. These vulnerabilities are also linked to poor educational outcomes, unemployment, prison time and the risk of poorer health and earlier death.

Children’s social care services have been required to widen their scope, from their origins in protecting younger children from familial abuse and neglect to addressing a much wider set of complex needs and vulnerabilities, with teenagers in particular needing specialist, tailored support. 

Birmingham’s strategy for meeting these challenges is focused on adapting and shifting approaches and cultures in a variety of agencies, including schools to reduce exclusions.

Dawn Roberts, assistant director, early help, family support and youth justice at the Birmingham Children’s Trust told LGC the strategy “enabled us to see the world differently” with efforts to reduce crime treated as “part of a broader safeguarding approach”.

There are few who would not argue that early intervention with vulnerable families is key but, as the shortfall in the funding required continues to grow, these are often the services sacrificed to ensure those children most at risk are protected.

Moreover, as Wandsworth LBC’s assistant director for early help Rachel Egan told LGC, there is still a way to go before evidence of improved outcomes due to early intervention can be generally translated into practice.

“Until we do that we are always fighting fires,” she warned.

The funding available through the Troubled Families programme has been cited as vital to efforts in managing demand?? and facilitating changes in approach, but its future has been in doubt.

Yesterday while appearing before the housing, communities and local government committee local government minister Rishi Sunak gave enthusiastic backing for the programme, saying it was working “wonders” on the ground and evidence reflecting that is due to be published by a government report in the near future.

However, this alone will not address the increasing scale and complexity of the problems facing those engaged in tackling the risks facing children.

Until there is a broader political effort in Westminster to address the root causes of children becoming vulnerable to exploitation in the first place, with a sharp focus on addressing the impact of poverty on families and children’s lives, safeguarding efforts are likely to fall short.  

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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