County lines is a current and evolving issue. This means we don’t yet have access to the kind of longitudinal research that could tell us with any real confidence about the risk profile of this particular group of children – the signals or related factors that make county lines involvement more likely.
However, criminals exploiting vulnerable children is not a new problem, and our response doesn’t have to start from scratch. We already know enough to tell us that the children who are at greater risk of exploitation are also at greater risk of a range of poor outcomes. These are children who may have experienced early adversity, such as abuse or neglect, domestic violence or parental mental health problems. They may be in the care system. They are likely to be economically disadvantaged. They may demonstrate observable signs of risk, such as going missing, using drugs or increasingly disruptive or aggressive behaviour.
Early intervention cannot solve all these problems. It is not an alternative to public health approaches or action to reduce poverty and social disadvantage. However, we know that early intervention programmes can reduce these kinds of risks when they are delivered to a high standard to the families who need them the most.
We have a long way to go before effective support is available to every child who needs it
We urgently need more high-quality evaluation of programmes designed to reduce the risk of children becoming victims of criminal exploitation or involved in gangs. There are lots of interventions aiming to do this – through mentoring, sport or music for example – but very few of them are yet able to prove their impact on outcomes for children. We must make sure that we are putting money into the things that stand the best chance of working.
We do know that there is a role for school-based programmes here, and these need to be more widely available. There are a range of well-evidenced school-based interventions that address specific threats to children’s outcomes, including risks associated with becoming a victim of criminal exploitation, such as substance misuse and gang involvement.
There are also several well-evidenced programmes which can be delivered at a universal level to whole classes, which aim to develop children’s social and emotional skills, including their ability to form positive relationships and make responsible decisions. These skills are vitally important to a whole range of outcomes later in life.
The case for early intervention is strong but we have a long way to go before effective support is available to every child who needs it. Local leaders have a crucial role to play in setting out a clear, long-term vision for early intervention in their area, and in fostering a culture of evidence-based decision-making and practice. While we continue to support new investment, we must also ensure that the money that is already being spent on early intervention is used in the best possible way.
Donna Molloy, director of policy and practice, Early Intervention Foundation
Donna Molloy: Response to county lines need not start from scratch