The growing recognition of teenagers’ vulnerability to criminal exploitation requires new approaches from children’s services departments
Children’s social care services are changing the way they work to tackle the growing problem of ‘county lines’ drug operations, which involve the criminal exploitation of young people to supply and sell illicit substances in smaller towns and rural areas. However, uncertainty over funding has raised fears that efforts to protect those at risk could be hampered.
The National Crime Agency’s intelligence assessment of county lines drug supply published in January provided the clearest picture yet of how sophisticated and adaptable criminal networks prey on the young and vulnerable.
NCA analysis suggests there are 2,000 individual phone lines selling drugs, linked to approximately 1,000 ‘branded’ county lines operations controlled by criminal networks based in urban areas.
The exploitation of vulnerable people to deal and move drugs is described as a “key element” of the offending model. The Home Office National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which identifies victims of trafficking and exploitation, shows 24% of recorded county lines cases involved children, with a further 2% of cases linked to child sexual abuse. While these child victims were as young as 11, a “large” but unspecified majority were boys aged 15 to 17. Ten per cent of all cases involved serious physical violence.
However, the scale of criminal activity and the number of victims is likely to be under-represented as the NRM presents data only according to the primary exploitation type recorded.
Graphs and charts
Children with a broad range of vulnerabilities are regularly targeted, with poverty, family breakdown, involvement with social services, behavioural and developmental disorders and exclusion from mainstream schools identified as characteristics criminals look for when identifying victims.
This places children’s social care services at the centre of eff orts to identify and support victims, with a key role in prevention, rehabilitation and family support.
If we don’t start to be honest about what is making a difference and what is not, the public sector is going to be in a difficult place
Heather Sandy, Lincolnshire CC
However, senior officers at the forefront of adapting their councils’ approaches to meet new complex challenges have highlighted existing ﬁnancial pressures in key parts of the system and expressed concern at uncertainty over future funding for vital interventions.
The NCA has identified London as the origin of the largest number of county lines operations, with 15% of all dealing lines stemming from the Metropolitan Police area.
At Wandsworth LBC, assistant director for early help Rachel Egan told LGC there is a range of work under way in response to the threat. This combines a focus on establishing risk and upscaling prevention efforts with a “trauma-based approach” recognising the past distress many child offenders who have been exploited are likely to have suffered.
But Ms Egan admitted a lot of the current approach to children’s social care was geared towards protecting children from “familial factors” when “a real contextual and holistic approach” is needed to address broader, emerging risks.
She said: “We have got work to do to deal with immediate problems. We have got to get investment in early intervention and understand what the evidence is and translate that into practice. Until we do that we are always fighting fires.” Ms Egan added uncertainty over the future of the government’s Troubled Families programme, which during its second phase will see £920m allocated to councils up to 2020, is “one of the big questions” as it supports work in Wandsworth to keep children at home, where they are considered less vulnerable to exploitation.
“With that whole family approach, we have a lot of services supported through [Troubled Families] in early intervention, she said. “If that ends and there is nothing to replace it we will have fewer people to work with families.”
Last month it was announced the government had made £9.8m of Troubled Families funding available specifically to tackle youth crime. However, when asked by LGC the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government could not commit to the funding continuing beyond 2020, saying it would be considered as part of the spending review.
Council spending on youth justice, which includes youth offending teams and the costs of young offenders on remand, fell by £156.6m (51%) nationally between 2010-11 and 2017-18, according to the National Audit Office. Central government funding for youth offending teams, a key component in the fight against exploitation, halved between 2010-11 and 2017-18, from £145m to £72m. Councils have had to top up funding for important prevention work.
The number of children held in youth custody on remand increased in 2017-18 by 19% on the previous year and made up nearly a quarter (24%) of all children in youth custody. A report earlier this year by charity Transform Justice found evidence that remand is particularly likely if the child is said to be involved in a gang activity by the prosecution.
LGC analysis of council outturn ﬁgures for youth justice spending between 2015-16 and 2017-18 shows a 4.5% fall nationally. However, there was a 5% increase in 2017-18 on the previous year. This rise coincided with an announcement by the Youth Justice Board, which provides funding to councils for remand costs, that nightly rates for keeping children in custody would increase by up to 13.6%.
However, there is signiﬁcant variation in youth justice spending across the country, with 59 of 150 councils experiencing a reduction in spending of 20% or more over the period. A spokesman for Cornwall Council, which had one of the largest falls at 76%, said the area is the second most deprived region in northern Europe according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Commission, with some of the lowest levels of funding for education and social care in the country.
They added the council is facing signiﬁcant budget pressures due to continued cuts in funding from central government and rising demand for its services to children. “Despite these pressures Cornwall Council and its partners has been able to maintain sufficient specialist roles to work with young offenders and those at risk of offending,” the spokesperson added.
Ms Egan said Wandsworth has reduced the number of children on remand, but the funding from the Youth Justice Board has reduced by a greater amount and still does not cover the costs.
In 2018-19 the council’s overall budget for this issue was £2.3m. The amount received from the Youth Justice Board was just under £400,000.
The NCA has identified that 9% of county lines operations originate in the West Midlands, the region with the second highest proportion nationally.
A report to Birmingham City Council’s cabinet in December last year said the Birmingham Children’s Trust’s youth justice service continues to experience “signiﬁcant pressures” on the remand budget.
The total funding from the Youth Justice Board and the council for remand in 2018-19 is £715,615, while the total cost for 2017-18 was £1.6m.
Dawn Roberts, assistant director, early help, family support and youth justice at the trust, has played a key role in devising the city’s strategy for protecting children from gangs and criminal exploitation.
She said an oversupply of class A drugs in the city means criminal gangs look to ﬁnd other means of distribution, including through county lines operations.
Ms Roberts added the strategy has “enabled us to see the world differently” and efforts to reduce crime are seen as “part of a broader safeguarding approach”.
In Lincolnshire the county council has agreed with the police that children who commit a ﬁrst low-level offence are sent to a diversionary panel rather than receiving a caution, which means they do not have a potentially “devastating” criminal record.
Heather Sandy, chief officer for education at Lincolnshire CC, said the rationale for this policy “goes beyond budget”, adding: “Councils are faced with signiﬁcant cuts over several years. If we don’t start to be honest about what is making a difference and what is not, then the public sector is going to be in a difficult place.”
Ms Sandy said the children’s social care system, which “was designed to save babies that were being neglected”, has been adapted as adolescents are increasingly vulnerable to the increase in gang culture and the use of the county lines exploitation business model. This includes treating adolescents and their families as an asset in their decision-making through an educational approach as “bringing them into care is not the answer”.
Lucy Dacey, Children’s Society national programme manager for disrupting exploitation, said ﬁnancial pressures on councils are having an impact on thresholds for intervention, with some children not receiving support who should. But she said: “The biggest challenge with criminal exploitation in terms of social services is the traditional way social services and social workers assess risk based on neglect and abuse in their familial home.”
Stuart Gallimore, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Our sense and our understanding of safeguarding and risk has grown exponentially. “We have to put our hands up, in the past agencies had views about children making choices, making lifestyle choices, almost making a choice to put [themselves at risk].”
Source: National Crime Agency. County lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm 2018
‘This isn’t about young offenders getting away with it’
Youth cautions in Lincolnshire have fallen by more than 90% following an agreement between the police, county council and the youth offending service that young people will not be criminalised for a first offence.
Instead, cases are reviewed by panel that meets weekly to consider children and young people who have admitted a criminal offence.
Since the introduction of the panel in June 2017, more than 430 cases have been reviewed.
The council said a community-based resolution has been used in 82% of all cases heard, reducing youth cautions by over 90%. Patricia Bradwell (Con), executive councillor for children’s services, said: “This isn’t about young offenders getting away with it.
“Robust resolutions, with input from victims, mean young people won’t be criminalised, but take part in community action to repair the harm they’ve done.
“This is helping to reduce further offending and keep young people out of the youth justice system.”
The panel is a partnership between Lincolnshire Police, the county’s Youth Offending Service and Lincolnshire CC’s children’s services.
Criminal gangs target excluded children
The number of exclusions in England has been on an upward trajectory since 2013-14. The latest government figures show there was an increase from 6,685 in 2015-16 to 7,720 in 2016-17.
Most of these children are sent to pupil referral units, which have been identified by the National Crime Agency as being targeted by criminal gangs for recruitment.
Many PRUs, which are funded through the dedicated schools grant, have become academies so do not register in council outturn spending.
Despite the upward trend in exclusions, government figures suggest a 2% drop in net spending by councils that registered allocated funding on PRUs every year between 2015-16 and 2017-18.
Dawn Roberts, assistant director, early help, family support and youth justice at Birmingham Children’s Trust, said while the trust does not have responsibility for education, the aim is to reduce exclusions, with an ambition to see PRU staff spending more time in mainstream schools working on prevention.
She cited one example of a child deliberately getting excluded in order to get allocated to a PRU so he could recruit more pupils to sell drugs.
“In people’s minds it is about how do you extend your reach if you are under pressure to also sell,” Ms Roberts added.
She said the trust was also trying to use Troubled Families funding to encourage schools to intervene with pupils at an early stage through the programme’s payment by results mechanism.
“If [the Troubled Families programme) wasn’t replaced with something that targeted these vulnerable children and families then we would be seeing more need going unmet in the city [and] more coming into the care and criminal justice system,” Ms Roberts said.
Heather Sandy, chief officer for education at Lincolnshire CC, said evidence suggests more young people are coming into the county and being arrested for offences such as drug supply than young people living there going out.
But she said young people in Lincolnshire are as vulnerable as those elsewhere, with exclusions a key risk. Focus in this area has seen exclusions reduced by 40% in the past two years through working closely with schools.
“What that says is all headteachers need to be consistently applying the inclusion framework, so it is not OK for one headteacher to exclude for something fairly trivial and another teacher to put thousands of pounds worth of pastoral support and preventative work in with young people,” Ms Sandy said.
As a result, all Lincolnshire headteachers have agreed a minimum standard of intervention they will fund at a school before they access shared resources.