Drug dealers using kids in county lines trafficking plots are being placed on the sex offenders’ wing in prison, police say.
Ruthless drug dealers are being shamed into not “using kids” for county lines trafficking plots after being placed on the sex offenders’ wing in prison, police say.
Police, politicians, social workers and academics have been struggling to tackle the county lines phenomenon, which refers to young, impressionable and vulnerable children being used to deal drugs, usually crack or heroin, miles away from home.
The youths, sent by sophisticated gangsters in big cities, are often forced to live in filthy trap-houses and are regularly involved in violent altercations with other dealers sent by rival gangs.
In 2017, Bootle teenager Michael Warham was stabbed to death by Declan Graves, a county lines dealer from Speke, during a running battle between two Liverpool crime groups in Shrewsbury, 50 miles from Merseyside.
Now experts say that as well as Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE), county lines involves higher levels of sexual abuse or Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) than previously understood.
And efforts to use new laws, such as the Modern Slavery Act, to tackle exploitation may be helping to change attitudes.
One Merseyside Police detective told researchers: “When Organised Crime Group (OCG) members are charged with modern day slavery offences against children, they then go on the sex offenders’ wing and [because of the reputational damage this does] very quickly they’ll drop using kids, they’ll drop it completely.”
The quote was included in a report into county lines and children in care by criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory, which worked closely with Merseyside and North Wales police on the project.
The report, penned by Crest researchers Joe Caluori, Dr Molly Corlett and James Stott, warned sexual abuse and sexual violence was under reported in county lines cases, particularly amongst boys.
They said: “The role of CSE in county lines exploitation remains poorly understood. The literature suggests that exploiters use sexual violence to punish, shame and coerce young people.
“The Children’s Society has further argued that “plugging”, where children carry drugs inside their bodies, is “quite clearly a form of sexual violence”.
“Though the literature and our interviews suggest that both girls and boys experience sexual violence within county lines, the CSE cohorts shared with us were almost entirely female.
“In contrast, the CCE cohorts were near-exclusively male. This reflects flawed assumptions about gender and exploitation, as well as flawed recording practices.
“In our interviews, we heard about the widespread assumption that only girls are vulnerable to CSE and only boys are vulnerable to CCE.
“This means that girls’ traumatic experiences within county lines are not fully acknowledged — and, as a result, that they do not get the help they need. It also means that the sexual exploitation of boys within county lines goes unrecognised.”
The researchers found that Merseyside is “hugely overrepresented” in the market: responsible for around half as many deal lines as London despite only having a sixth of the population.
Many children drawn into county lines come from care settings.
In North Wales, 31% of missing incidents in the last two years were reported from care and in Merseyside, 41% of incidents (and 18% of children) were reported missing from residential care and unregulated care settings.
Crest reported: “However, the police are not consistently using county lines and CCE flags to identify heightened risk leading to a gap between data and operational understanding.”
Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Ian Critchley told the ECHO: “We note the findings of this report with interest. Whilst we acknowledge that there is still work to be done, at Merseyside Police we have been working tirelessly with partner agencies to significantly improve systems and processes over the past year to keep vulnerable children and young people safe.
“Merseyside Police has many dedicated teams working with our local authorities and other partners to locate, protect and safeguard those who go missing from home, including those in care homes, both regulated and unregulated, across the region.
“We have seen a reduction in the numbers of missing vulnerable young people over the past two years and we will continue to work with all care homes, both local authority run and private, and other forces across the country to share information to ensure Looked After Children are protected.
“We have introduced specific County Lines flags to our systems to help identify children vulnerable to exploitation and work with our partners to prevent them from being drawn into Serious and Organised Crime.
“Our operations through Project Medusa have meant that we’ve closed more than 100 county lines, made more than 400 arrests and safeguarded more than 200 people this year alone, as well as removing large quantities of cash, drugs and weapons from our streets.