Councils 'acting as recruiters' for county lines drug gangs by sending children away from home

Unregulated accommodation for over-16s is a 'magnet' for grooming gangs and drug dealers, MPs warn

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 16 September 2019 23:07 BST
Life as a teenage drug dealer

Local councils are acting as “recruiting sergeants” for drug dealers and grooming gangs by sending children to areas where they will be exploited, a report has found.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for runaway and missing children and adults said thousands of young people were being put at risk by being moved into care up to 100 miles away from home.

An inquiry found that the mostly privatised accommodation where they are rehoused is a “magnet” for paedophiles, grooming gangs and so-called county lines drugs networks.

The groups use teenagers to transport drugs and cash between urban hubs and regional target markets, where local children are also recruited.

The APPG’s report said semi-independent accommodation for over-16s, where teenagers arrive without any support or family networks, is often in deprived areas with active criminal networks.

It means that councils could be inadvertently opening up new “county lines” by sending children who have previously been coerced into drug dealing to different areas where gangmasters can expand their reach.

In one case revealed by the inquiry, a child on bail for murder was put in the same accommodation as a teenage victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited as a drug dealer.

A grooming victim was housed with a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation in another case, while a boy was stabbed after social services knowingly housed members of rival gangs in the same unregistered home.

Two-thirds of all children living in children’s homes now live out of their original area, up from 46 per cent in 2012, and the number reported missing has doubled in three years.

Three-quarters of all homes are private and are concentrated in the northwest of England, West Midlands and southeast.

Evidence suggests that county lines gang members have been sent to areas where young people are commonly placed to scout out new “opportunities”, develop their business and get more recruits.

Ann Coffey, chair of the APPG for runaway and missing children and adults, said the cycle must stop.

“It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for county lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away,” she added.

“Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them.

“By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children.”

Ms Coffey, a former Labour MP who defected to Change UK, also called for the “shady twilight world” of unregulated accommodation for over-16s to be regulated like homes for younger children.

The APPG report said children were “often” housed alongside adults who may be criminals or have addiction issues, and that some accommodation was poorly-managed by untrained staff.

It found that many of the teenagers sent away from home often repeatedly go missing, either because of exploitation or trying to return.

More than 70 per cent of the 41 police forces that responded to the inquiry said placing children out of their home area increased their risk of exploitation.

Police raised concern about the number of runaways, saying they were sometimes not aware that a property was being used as supported accommodation until an incident happened.

The Children’s Society, which supported the inquiry, called for the government to increase funding so councils can house vulnerable children in their own areas rather than sending them away.

“This should be a wakeup call for urgent action at both the national and local level,” said chief executive Mark Russell.

“No looked-after child should be placed simply because that is where a bed is free, instead of that is where the child is most likely to receive the care, support and sense of belonging they deserve.”

Police officers in Kent carry out a raid on a county lines suspect’s property (Kent Police)

The inquiry called for an emergency plan to cut out of area placements, regulate accommodation for over-16s and recognise the traumatic impact that being sent away had on children.

It was told of a boy who tried to hang himself on Christmas Day after being placed two-and-a-half hours away from home and a 15-year-old girl who walked 10 miles back to her mother’s house in another county.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils sometimes move children out of their home areas to “give them a new beginning” away from abuse or neglect, gangs, or to place them near relatives.

But it said the increasing number of older children in care meant councils were being “forced” to send others into different counties or unsuitable accommodation.

“Funding pressures alongside soaring demand for care are preventing councils from investing in the accommodation and support options at the level they need in order to provide the best and most appropriate help,” said Teresa Heritage, vice chair of the LGA’s children and young people board.

“It is vital that the government works with councils to understand these pressures and provides appropriate funding to ensure the right homes are available for all children.”

The report was released as the Home Office announced £30m funding for new technology to tackle child sexual exploitation and online abuse, while the government’s Serious Violence Strategy established a dedicated National Crime Agency unit to tackle county lines.

A government spokesperson said: “Councils must make sure all children in their care are in safe and suitable accommodation. In some cases, this provision is not meeting the quality standards we expect for our children, which is why we are working with the sector and Ofsted to tackle any issues related to poor practice where it occurs.

“We are building our evidence base to better understand how unregulated accommodation or out-of-area placements are used. We are also improving how local areas respond when a child in care goes missing and helping local areas tackle the risks vulnerable young people face, like exploitation from ‘county lines’ gangs, through our £2m national programme.”

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