Research has found that County Lines drug supply networks — where 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 — adapted to the restrictions of the spring lockdown. Methods of delivery and payment changed, yet there was no change in the demand for young people to run drugs, perpetuating their risk of exploitation, and continuing the supply of illegal substances.
Work to detect and effectively safeguard children and young people was also impacted as frontline professionals came to terms with working from home, unable to provide face-to-face support.
The interim findings are part of an ongoing study into the impact of Covid-19 on UK organised crime by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab in collaboration with the De Montfort University School of Law, funded by UKRI as part of its Covid-19 rapid response research scheme.
Initial findings include:
- British Transport Police reported early disruption successes of County Lines activity because of reduced use by bona fide passengers of the rail networks.
- Children continued to be identified far away from their homes and carrying large quantities of cash or drugs.
- Shifts towards the exploitation of victims who do not not fit existing stereotypes, such as girls, continued.
- Police received increased intelligence from residential areas as more people were working from home.
- Rising cases of online harms and abuse, with perpetrators using platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok in the early stages of grooming for the purposes of criminal exploitation.
- Lockdown inhibited opportunities for face-to-face safeguarding and risk assessment, creating challenges for child protection services, the police, the courts and other frontline services.
- Young people who did remain in regular contact with professionals were often much less comfortable in making disclosures over the telephone.
- Some areas saw increased calls by parents to helplines because of home-working arrangements which enabled them to spot behaviour that would, under normal circumstances, go unnoticed.
The Rights Lab has found that in the early stages of the spring lockdown, with the closure of the night-time economy and low usage of public transport, it was easier for authorities to spot children away from home carrying cash and drugs, with exploited young people often using false Covid-related excuses for their presence on the national rail network.
However, there has since been a preference towards private and hired vehicles, with bulk deliveries to provincial areas. Methods of delivery and payment have also adapted, for example with dealers refusing to accept cash and using local children as runners rather than children from outside the area. To avoid detection, gangs have also shifted to delivering in busy public areas, such as supermarket carparks, rather than from residential addresses.
In the study, experts suggested that although missing children reports had reduced during lockdown, children who were reported missing were often missing for longer, indicating that substances were being supplied and dealt in larger quantities, but less frequently. However, rising concern over possible Covid-19-related sanctions meant some parents were less comfortable in disclosing when their children went missing from home. Other safeguarding professionals said that the number of missing vulnerable children soared as the effectiveness of safeguarding was cut.
There is emerging evidence that due to the identity of the stereotypical victim profile now being widely recognised, there is an increasing risk to young people from more affluent backgrounds, and girls, who are less likely to be picked up by police.
With a large uplift in people working from home, in some areas police reported increases in the amount of intelligence coming through from residential areas due to the ability of residents to notice and report irregular behaviour, such as frequent visitors to properties.
Some safeguarding professionals reported that one of the positives to come out of the move to online working was a greater flexibility in terms of establishing multi-agency meetings and forums, resulting in stronger partnership working and communication. Police documented enhanced engagement with members of the public, with greater awareness of the signs of County Lines activity and a subsequent rise in the levels of intelligence received.
In contrast, professionals that usually rely on face-to-face interaction with young people at risk, such as staff in schools and social care, found that remote interventions made it more difficult to maintain the quality and quantity of their engagement, making it almost impossible to accurately assess vulnerability and monitor ongoing risks. Court and school closures, and delays to CPS processes, further exacerbated risk to vulnerable young people.
Frontline professionals saw increasing cases of online harms and abuse, with perpetrators using platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok in early-stage grooming. These platforms also continue to be used as mechanisms of control and a means of exposing young people to the aspirational lifestyle of being involved in the lucrative illegal drug economy.
Dr Ben Brewster, who is leading this UKRI-funded investigation, said: “While our research is very much ongoing, it’s crucial we get our findings out there, especially as England has now entered a second national lockdown. We are urgently working to collect more data and produce more solid findings to guide the network of professionals we work with.
James added: "It’s clearly a worry that tightening of restrictions in many areas, along with the strain on family finances that goes with that, may increase children’s vulnerability to exploitation.
“That’s why it’s vital that the Government offers struggling families better financial support including free school meals for all children in households on Universal Credit.
“Every child who has still not returned to the classroom, or whose education is disrupted in future - including those who go missing during school hours – must get the support they need including access to a named trusted professional who can identify and address risks like exploitation.”
Information on how to spot the possible signs of child who is being exploited can be found here.
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