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Primary school-aged children running drugs for gangs has “become the norm”, with hundreds of thousands of children at risk of serious violence and crime. Children as young as 13 are heading up county lines operations, the former children’s commissioner has warned.
So-called “county lines” dealing sees kingpins use smaller and often vulnerable dealers – including children – to ship drugs from cities to towns and rural areas.
Anne Longfield, who heads up the Commission on Young Lives, urged the Government to treat the exploitation of children as seriously as it does terrorism.
The commission’s final report, Hidden In Plain Sight, warns hundreds of thousands of children in England are being put at risk of violence, harm and crime.
The exploitation of children has shifted in the last two years, with younger children being targeted, along with children from more typically middle class backgrounds in “leafy suburbs”.
Ms Longfield told the PA news agency she has heard of children as young as nine or 10 being used to run drugs, and 14-year-olds heading up county lines operations.
The report said a combination of Covid, a cost-of-living crisis and a return to austerity would be a “gift” to criminals, who see children as the “commodity of choice” to exploit.
In September it was revealed that 38 percent of county lines suspects stopped on the rail network last year were under 19.
In a week-long blitz on county lines operations in October, police closed 172 supply networks, seized millions of pounds of class A and B drugs and arrested more than 1,300 suspects.
Officers also identified more than 1,200 children and vulnerable adults who had been exploited by ruthless gang bosses and forced to act as couriers.
Government figures covering 2021-22 show there were 11,600 instances where gangs were a factor and 10,140 instances where child criminal exploitation was a factor in assessments of children in need – which the commission believes is the tip of the iceberg.
Estimates suggest there could be as many as 200,000 children in England aged 11 to 17 who are vulnerable to serious violence.
Those most at risk are teenagers growing up in poverty, in deprived areas, and they are disproportionately from black, brown and minority ethnic backgrounds, the commission said. It noted that young women and girls who are victims “often go unseen”.
Ms Longfield said: “I think it’s now become the norm for the older age primary school (child) to be involved in the outskirts of running.
“I think sadly, I’ve been told more and more about the 14-year-olds – even a 13-year-old I’ve heard of – as being involved in that role in a county line.
“So I think that is a new development after Covid, and what people say is that while the market was suppressed during the pandemic, actually when it opened up those that were targeting young people went for a younger group of kids to do so, which is horrific – these are children.”
She described “unthinkable” situations such as grandmothers asked to carry drugs to protect children, and teenagers being threatened.
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She said the cost of living crisis could make things worse: “We know that families who have very little at home, that young people will know that, that they’ll feel that responsibility to bring in money if they can.
“So we’re seeing kids being put in a really, really difficult position where they want to do things to help their family, they want to be able to help financially if they can, and seeing an opportunity to do so – that is adding to the pressure.
“But we’re also seeing that exploiters know that – again, no opportunity is ever missed for these people – they know that kids are going to be more open and susceptible to the idea that there’s money to be made, and that’s something which they are exploiting ruthlessly.”
The commission is calling for a “Sure Start Plus” for teenagers – part-financed by millions recovered from the proceeds of crime each year – bringing health and education services together to ensure early help and ongoing support for young people at risk.
It also wants to see faster mental health support, more youth workers and schools remaining open in the evenings and weekends to be funded by levies on social media companies and mobile phone providers, and dormant bank accounts.
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