- The criminal exploitation of children can take many forms. It can include children being forced to work in cannabis factories, being coerced into moving drugs or money across the country, forced to shoplift or pickpocket, or to threaten other young people.
- Practitioners and police report increasing awareness of children being exploited through the 'county lines' model. This typically describes the distribution of drugs around the country through the use of dedicated mobile phone 'lines', though the model is not static.
- Children can be targeted for exploitation through face-to-face interactions or online through social media and other platforms. Criminal groups can hijack popular culture such as music videos to entice young people into criminal exploitation.
- Any child can be at risk of exploitation but some vulnerabilities place children at greater risk. These include: growing up in poverty, having learning difficulties, being excluded from school or being a looked after child.
- Going missing from home or care is an indicator of potential exploitation. Children in care go missing more frequently than other children and are more likely to be found outside of the boundaries of their home local authority.
- Older adolescents are more likely to be recorded as having been criminally exploited but there is evidence that primary school age children – as young as seven – are targeted. There can be a lack of recognition of criminal exploitation affecting younger children and so the opportunity to protect children under the age of 10 can be missed.
- Gender, age, ethnicity and background can all affect the way in which professionals do or do not recognise young people as victims, or at risk, of criminal exploitation. This can then affect the response they receive.
- Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation.
Children coming into contact with statutory agencies
There is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. This can mean that the response to children from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country is inconsistent.
- The vast majority of police forces and local authorities across England and Wales were not able to share figures of the number of children affected by criminal exploitation in their area.
- There are no consistent 'markers' to 'flag' children who are at risk of child criminal exploitation across different agencies they come into contact with – including police and social care. These markers could include, for example, children missing from home, stopped by police, or arrested for drug related offences.
- Around 1 in 4 local authorities responded that they collect data – but only around 1 in 5 of all local authorities reported that this data is retrievable to be shared. Police forces were largely not able to provide the number of children arrested for drug related offences who were at risk of child criminal exploitation.
- Data on arrests of children aged 10 to 17 for drug related offences provides the best proxy data available on children exploited by criminal groups. Analysis of this data shows that more children are arrested for 'possession with intent to supply Class A drugs' than for 'possession' alone. The data shows an increase of 13% from 2015/16 to 2017/18 in the number of 10 to 17 year olds arrested for possession with intent to supply Class A drugs. (This number rises to 49% if data from London is excluded).
- The increase in children arrested for intent to supply is outpacing the rise in children arrested for possession alone. Despite a decrease in the number of stop and search instances overall, there was a 34% increase between 2015/16 and 2017/18 in drugs based stop and search instances where firearms or offensive weapons were found – suggesting a link between drug-related crimes and youth violence.
Responses to children who are criminally exploited
- Children and young people who are exploited by criminal groups experience a variety of responses. This inconsistency is driven by a lack of consistent national and local safeguarding strategies and procedures.
- There is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. This can be part of the explanation of the inconsistent response from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country.
- Weaskedwhetherlocalauthoritieshaveastrategyinplacetorespondtochildcriminal exploitation and county lines. Of the 141 upper tier authorities that responded to us, almost 2 in 3 do not have a strategy. Fifty authorities said that they do have a strategy or are in the process of developing one.
- Where children are being criminally exploited, safeguarding responses are largely reactive. Professionals reported that many children come to attention of statutory agencies when exploitation is already present in their lives and criminal groups are controlling them to deliver drugs. Typically, in these instances professionals report that law enforcement takes precedence over safeguarding responses.
- There has been an increase in the number of suspected child victims of child criminal exploitation to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) but very few local authorities collect or can provide this data. Across 17 local authorities, more than half of the children referred to the NRM were because of child criminal exploitation (35 out of 61 referrals).
- Both police and local authorities' data on NRM referrals for child criminal exploitation is patchy – possibly because there is no definition of child criminal exploitation in legislation and neither agency is required to collect and report that data.
This report highlights a patchwork of data, understanding and responses to child criminal exploitation. This lack of consistent strategies and approaches is leaving statutory agencies struggling to keep up with organised criminal groups who are coercing and controlling children into criminality. Sadly, children are more likely to be identified when exploitation has already happened – or is happening and at a stage where they are more likely to be criminalised – than to receive a safeguarding response.
In order to disrupt the criminal exploitation of children, we identify the following summary of recommendations for central and local government and agencies. A more comprehensive list of recommendations can be found later in this report.
The law should be clarified to ensure that all children who are groomed, coerced and controlled into committing crime are recognised as victims of exploitation.
The Home Office should amend the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to include the definition of child criminal exploitation. Such a definition would help ensure a common approach from criminal justice and safeguarding professionals, would recognise the traumatic experiences of children who are exploited, and assist the prosecution of criminals and the avoidance of criminalisation for exploited children.
The Home Office should consult on a new criminal offence outlawing the practice of making a child insert and carry drugs within their bodies. For the purposes of clarity and consistency, this new offence should be introduced via an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
All government departments and statutory agencies should be clear about their role in identifying and disrupting child criminal exploitation, and should fully understand their role in responding to victims.
The Department for Education and Home Office should jointly lead the development of a cross-departmental strategy on child criminal exploitation, backed up with changes to relevant statutory guidance, to ensure that professionals working with children are clear about how to safeguard children who are at risk or are criminally exploited.
Statutory agencies should have access to appropriate resources to identify and support victims of child criminal exploitation.
- The Department for Education and Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government must urgently address the shortfall in children's social care funding, which is set to reach £3.1billion by 2024/25. Reinvestment in children's services should be focused on supporting local authorities to reinstate early help and early intervention services, including youth services.
- Eligibility for support as a child victim of human trafficking or modern slavery must be universal. The Home Office should commit to making independent child trafficking advocates (ICTAs) available to all children who require them, including children with effective parental responsibility. The support should be long-term and cover transition to adulthood to ensure that children are not revictimised as they reach adulthood.
The introduction of new local safeguarding partnerships should be seen as an opportunity to ensure that multi-agency arrangements are structured in a way to identify and respond to child criminal exploitation.
- New local safeguarding partnerships should undertake an assessment of how many children are at risk of child criminal exploitation in their areas and produce local strategies to address the issues. The strategies should outline the early help and early intervention support available to children who are identified as at risk, as well as prevention activities.
Data collection and recording around child criminal exploitation should be improved to ensure more accurate understanding of scale and prevalence and the effectiveness of interventions.
- Local authorities and police should collect data on the number of children identified at risk of criminal exploitation and referred to the National Referral Mechanism. Markers for child criminal exploitation should be introduced on the systems used by police and children's services to ensure consistent identification of children who may be at risk. This includes the introduction of a marker on the Missing Persons Database which is currently being developed.