Creating a non-judgmental space for victims to discuss gang involvement in county lines would make a big difference, writes Teresa Carroll
The increase in gangs selling drugs to our communities served by the further education sector is startling.
The National Crime Agency’s analysis suggests there are more than 1,000 county line drug lines in operation across the country. This refers to the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children to move and deliver drugs, usually from cities to rural areas.
Victims include children and young people, both girls and boys, aged between 15 and 17. However, as county lines is often a hidden form of abuse, the age of victims may be even lower.
Many victims are recruited as children, with exploitation continuing into early adulthood.
Last month, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, warned that there were around 27,000 children aged between 10 and 17 at high risk of gang exploitation, with these numbers likely to increase because of Covid-19.
Statutory guidance across the UK highlights it is the responsibility of educators to safeguard young people from all forms of abuse and criminal exploitation. The government’s Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance from September is clear that county lines is a safeguarding issue.
In September 2018 the Home Office published updated guidance, called ‘Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines Guidance’.
More recently the Ministry of Justice also published practical advice for frontline practitioners on safeguarding, signs of exploitation and referral pathways, called ‘County Lines Exploitation Practice Guidance for YOTs and Frontline Practitioners’.
But more needs to be done to raise awareness of county lines in FE providers and schools.
‘Signs not always obvious’
Young people and adults more at risk include those who are economically vulnerable, have a special educational need or disability, are in the care system and who have been excluded from mainstream education.
But colleges need to remember the signs are not always obvious. Take Patrick (not his real name), who was an academically gifted and talented 17-year-old footballer when his family started to notice changes in his behaviour.
He began refusing to attend college and skipping football practice. He was soon repeatedly arrested on drugs-related charges, sent to prison, and released after serving his 12-month sentence.
He is just one of many examples of a young person who was groomed and exploited by a county lines gang.
Victims are often recruited face-to-face, including in FE institutions, special educational needs schools and homeless shelters, as well as on social media. Some children are groomed through family members.
‘Look out for clues’
We must ensure that all our children and young people have access to an education that provides a clear line of sight to an independent life, with employment that will sustain them.
County lines gangs can take advantage of young people who feel they have no prospect of getting an education or a well-paid job. As one victim said, there is a need for money, and county lines is a “way of making good money”.
So, what can colleges and FE providers do?
County lines is a ‘way of making good money’
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that learners will rarely report county lines exploitation. This is a hidden crime and many victims easily go under the radar.
Educators need look out for clues, such as missing classes, unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones or behaving in an unusual way.
The County Lines – Children’s Society toolkit for professionals offers guidance on vulnerabilities and indicators. Robust procedures need to be in place when these are flagged.
Staff must also listen closely to young people who have been affected.
To gain a better understanding of young people’s experiences, this week the ETF presented the critically acclaimed production Bullet Tongue Reloaded by The Big House, an organisation that works with those from the care system to produce plays.
In a Q&A session with the young cast, many said colleges and schools listening to them in a non-judgmental way would have helped them escape gang culture.
County lines gangs could exploit the uncertainty created by Covid to prey on more vulnerable young people.
Therefore, education and training that has a clear line of sight to a decent job with a successful career pathway has never been more important.