The Children's Society - Protecting children from being exploited by criminal groups
Inside This Box is a powerful production highlighting the harsh reality of life of young people who are coerced into criminal exploitation. It shows their vulnerability and the trauma they experience trying to deal with terrifying situations, often on their own.
Young people define child criminal exploitation as ‘when someone you trusted makes you commit crimes for their benefit’. This is the definition we use at The Children’s Society. It conveys well the key components of exploitation – a trusted person taking advantage of children’s vulnerability to deceive, control, coerce or manipulate them into criminal activity. This can include work in cannabis factories, moving drugs across the country, shoplifting, pickpocketing, or threatening violence against others.
Recently, child criminal exploitation has become strongly associated with one specific model known as ‘county lines’. This involves organised criminal networks exploiting young people and vulnerable groups to distribute drugs and money across the country through dedicated mobile phone lines, often from cities to smaller towns and coastal communities. ‘County lines’ is no longer a fringe issue, but a systemic problem reported in almost every police force in the country.
Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection. They’re being controlled through threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear. For criminal groups, exploited children are a commodity they are prepared to sacrifice to avoid themselves being arrested by the police.
There are many signs that a child may be groomed for exploitation or is being exploited – from changes in behaviour to going missing, coming home with unexplained expensive gifts or looking anxious every time the phone beeps.
Sadly, our research report Counting Lives found that signs are too often missed or ignored and that many children remain under the radar of professionals who can help them until they are trapped in the cycle of exploitation. They might only come to the attention of services when they are arrested for possession of drugs, or excluded from school for their behaviour. Even then, questions are not always asked about why they are in this situation and they are treated as criminals and not offered help.
For girls who are criminally exploited, it may be even easier to fall through the gaps. There is not enough awareness among parents, professionals and in the community that girls may be exploited by criminal groups through county lines operations.
Any child can become a victim of exploitation, though Counting Lives shows that a combination of factors can put children at higher risk:
• Their vulnerability as a child, which can be exacerbated if they have additional needs like learning difficulties.
• Vulnerability created by society - for example poverty, experiences of discrimination, lack of opportunities, or the inability to access education.
• The lack of protective factors in a child’s life, including a lack of support from their family or the local community.
• The proximity or access a perpetrator has to a child.
COVID-19 can exacerbate many of these factors in the lives of children increasing the risk of them being targeted by criminals.
Exploitation never stops. Even during the current pandemic, when children and families have been forced to spend more time in their homes, there are concerns that exploitation has continued. Many vulnerable children have been at even more risk. Being away from school and spending more time at home has meant they have been ‘invisible’ to professionals who might have helped them, such as teachers in schools or youth workers. There are also concerns that more are being groomed for exploitation through online platforms as children are relying more on technology to stay in touch with friends and family, and to learn.
That’s why it is so important, now more than ever, that children are supported and protected. We all have a role to play in keeping children safe. As criminals are targeting, and trapping children in exploitative situations, it is the responsibility of professionals and everyone in children’s lives, as well as wider communities, to do everything they can to prevent and disrupt exploitation and protect children.
At The Children’s Society we work with children and families affected to help children stay safe. We also raise awareness among professionals and decision-makers of signs of exploitation and steps that need to be taken to disrupt it.
To help prevent criminal exploitation from happening, we need changes to the law to make coercion and control of children for the purpose of exploitation a criminal offence. We need to change systems that make children vulnerable, address poverty and provide the support they need.
Yet, the first step to making things better is something that does not require any policy changes. It is about showing young people that we care, that they can trust us and that we are there to support them to stay safe. Each of us needs to be more like the train conductor who our heroine meets in this play - kind, non-judgemental, caring and able to act on signs that a child is at risk.
For resources on how to identify the signs of criminal exploitation and what to do if you are worried a child may be being exploited, please visit www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/tackling-criminal-exploitation-and-county-lines/county-lines-resources