Rise in violence and sexual exploitation against children and young people ‘linked to County Lines’

New research into the criminal exploitation of children has revealed an increase in self-harm and suicide attempts among children and young people admitted into hospital with clear links to County Lines in the illegal drugs trade.

County Lines is the system whereby drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries, usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced and controlled by gangs.

In their latest report, the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab says health professionals on the ground are warning of young people being coerced by County Lines gangs through online exploitation and the harbouring of explicit photos. Rights Lab reports are regularly released to inform the authorities and enable urgent action as the pandemic and its impacts continue.

Researchers at the university’s world-renowned Rights Lab are working with De Montfort University and are funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

Interviews with hospital A&E youth workers have revealed a rise in the incidence of violence, as well as shifts in the types of injuries and their severity. One participant reported an increase in the number of young males (aged 21 and under) attending A&E in the south of the country who had been the victim of rape by heterosexual males in a gang context.

One youth worker described some of the injuries they had seen: “Fingernails pulled off, hair pulled out, even the stabbings… whereas before Covid-19 you may have seen one or two injuries on a young person, now they will be repeatedly stabbed. So we’re talking five, six times is kind of an average amount of stab wounds.”

The researchers say that males still represent the majority of A&E admissions in relation to violence, however A&E professionals reported that injuries sustained by female victims in relation to County Lines activity were becoming more severe and sexual in nature. One youth worker referred to the use of ‘gift girls’, describing the sexual exploitation of females by County Lines actors where victims are sexually exploited and passed around the wider network as a reward.

Online grooming featured consistently among interviewees, particularly involving females who were being coerced into taking and sharing explicit images of themselves. While it was unclear whether this was linked to sexual or criminal exploitation, rising cases of self-harm in young females were attributed to this form of online activity.

One youth worker observed the existence of ‘pop-up brothels’ that were operated by organised crime groups, having not seen them prior to Covid-19. The victims, he said, were usually young British girls.

While a general increase of self-harm and attempted suicide was reported across all genders, one youth worker specifically noted seeing rising cases of young males aged 17 to 19. A participant told researchers: “We’ve continued to see incredibly high levels of suicide attempts. What has increased with that is the reason for those suicide attempts being online exploitation and males and females being asked to send explicit photos.”

Professionals reported that this had become more noticeable in some County Lines, where the harbouring of indecent images was being used by the network as part of their coercive techniques to exert control over young people.

As well as online grooming and harm, perpetration-induced trauma and the feeling of being trapped in their exploitation were increasingly reported by young people in A&E as a reason for their deteriorating mental health. Another participant also identified suicide attempts linked with the occurrence of sexual violence within a gang context:

“One person who I met in A&E, he had been quite heavily involved in County Lines and he was in the hospital that night for trying to drink a litre of bleach. He said: ‘I just wanted to get out of it because this particular day, they was gang raping someone’ […] When he refused to get involved they beat him up and now they was after him because he wouldn’t get involved in that gang rape”.

These latest findings are extremely concerning – taken together with the fact that professionals’ ability to identify signs of exploitation and safeguard vulnerable young people are being hindered by Covid-19 restrictions, it is a very alarming picture.

Dr Brewster, who is leading the research, continued: “One area that has seen some positive outcomes, is the privacy afforded by visiting restrictions in hospitals has meant that some young people have felt safe enough to disclose the circumstances of their injuries and experiences of exploitation. This is something that should be borne in mind when setting future policy and practice guidance.”

The Rights Lab has previously reported on observations that some drug dealers had moved away from public transport and onto the roads because of Covid-19, using private hire vehicles.

In their latest report, the experts have found that there has been an increase in the number of injuries treated in A&E as a result of road traffic accidents, police car chases and vehicles being used as weapons by County Lines perpetrators in the south of England.

The research suggests this rise has been caused by increased movement of drugs on the roads since England’s first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, which has contributed to more young people being exploited through car theft.

One participant in the study, an A&E worker in the South of England, remarked: “We have seen a dramatic change in young people being injured in police chases, where cars have then been stopped or detained. We would believe that is because young people are not using public transport routes.”

A Security and Audit Manager of a leading rental company confirmed that hire vehicles had become a favoured mode of transport for organised crime groups over the course of the pandemic. He said: “We (car rental company) migrated to what we call a flexi-agreement, a 28-day rolling rental, you do it all online. From an Organised Crime Group’s perspective, that’s great, because it means they’re not having to expose themselves by sending people into a branch. What we then also started to clock was ID theft, ID fraud.”

This participant reported an increase in individuals selling their identities online, mainly through social media platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook for between £500 and £4,500. Similar to the traditional County Lines model, those less likely to raise the suspicion of the authorities (i.e. ‘clean skins’) were deemed more desirable to the network and were offered more money. Once in receipt of the relevant documentation, organised crime groups reportedly began to take out loans, credit cards and car finance agreements in the victim’s name, liquidating the assets and using the money for illicit activity. The researchers say the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators of ID fraud has become a huge issue for law enforcement, while also having serious and long-term consequences for victims.

While we have detailed some of the short-term concerns raised by practitioners as we transition out of lockdown, there are significant long-term anxieties across the sector. With increased vulnerability, the potential for large-scale and deteriorating cases of mental health issues, rising cases of online harms and substance misuse, and increasing reliance on technology enabling the proliferation of organised crime, it is essential that organisations encourage a professional curiosity throughout their workforce to identify and respond to the signs of exploitation.

Through extensive interviews with stakeholders including national law enforcement, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), social care and safeguarding practitioners across England the Rights Lab’s research project details Covid’s effect on County Lines operations, and its impact on the prevention, detection and safeguarding abilities of police and other organisations. Their latest set of recommendations include:

  1. Face-to-face meetings with young people should resume as soon as possible.
  2. Independent return home interviews should be completed in person within 48 hours, providing opportunity for people to be listened to, in order to understand why they went missing, and what harm they experienced.
  3. Statutory services should incorporate diversionary schemes to reduce court backlogs and keep young people out of the criminal justice system to avoid their further exploitation.
  4. All A&E departments in the UK should have youth workers in place to offer support to children and young people attending hospital with violence related injuries.
  5. Criminal exploitation and County Lines training should be made a national requirement for those working with children, young people and vulnerable adults.

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