Jess Hull, Policy and Communications Analyst
Crest is working with police and local authority partners to examine how young people involved in county lines are identified as victims, groomers, or willing participants and consider the outcomes for these young people over time.
In July, we sat down with key stakeholders from our deep dive areas including representatives from the police forces and local authorities, to discuss some of the issues they face when dealing with young people involved in county lines, and to share examples of good practice.
Police forces and their partners viewing victims and offenders as a binary opposition contributes to vulnerable young people missing out on support and possibly causing wider harm
Participants noted that police officers’ awareness of vulnerability and criminal exploitation has shifted in recent years, with improved training and emphasis on the overlap between victimisation and offending for young people involved in county lines. However, this shift has not been without its challenges. Several participants cautioned that drawing a black and white distinction between victims and perpetrators, missing the many shades of grey is often still an entrenched mentality amongst some officers. It was suggested that the lack of a clear and consistent approach to identifying victims of county lines exploitation, along with delays in NRM decision-making, has compounded the issue - with police officers struggling to deal with increasingly ‘blurred’ lines around exploitation. In this respect, the importance of effective collaboration with partner agencies and support services familiar with the young person under investigation was highlighted as an important part of the solution.
Local authority representatives described a similar struggle to manage young people involved in county lines dealing who are both victims of exploitation and perpetrators of crime. It was further observed that the gender of the young person in question may impact on perceptions of exploitation; girls are often automatically perceived as victims, whilst boys are more likely to be considered perpetrators. It was stressed that this gendered categorisation does not always reflect the complex reality of exploitation and contributes to young people missing out on appropriate interventions. Reference was made to the case of a young male who was a victim of exploitation but did not receive appropriate support following the conviction of those who involved him in criminal activity. Now, 12 months on, the young male has actively sought out criminal gangs and has begun to groom other young children. It was suggested that the boy’s case demonstrates the failure of police and partner authorities to recognise and respond to young people who are simultaneously victims and offenders.
A narrow focus on typical manifestations of county lines activity can distract from other forms of exploitation - meeting performance targets at the expense of wider harms
The usefulness of the term ‘county lines’ was discussed, with mixed views around its value and limitations. There was recognition that county lines represents a political priority, and therefore remains a performance focus. However, several participants suggested that use of the term has narrowed thinking around exploitation, especially when working with the CPS and local partners. A focus on identifying ‘typical’ county lines features, such as a young person trafficking drugs across distance, may distract from other forms of exploitation. Indeed, it was noted that in some areas, local urban street gangs and OCGs dominate and perhaps also use adapted county lines models such as the ‘franchise’ and ‘relay’ models, yet are sometimes given less attention and targeted resources than drug markets operating under a typical county lines model. To some extent, it was argued, distinguishing drug networks in this way complicates the picture and can distract from the harm caused at an individual level.
Fig 1: The emerging ‘local franchise’ model sees gangs recruit young people in the importing area, rather than the exporting area
There have been some local successes using new approaches to engage young people exploited by county lines
There was consensus that new and creative interventions to support young people involved in county lines are vital, with traditional social work models based on familial abuse and neglect failing to engage this cohort of young people and their families. It was suggested that for frontline police officers, an honest and open approach when speaking to young people encourages cooperation, resulting in better intelligence gathering and improved contextual understanding. In one partner area, a ‘circuit-breaker’ approach is being trialled for repeat victims of exploitation, whereby the young person at risk is temporarily moved out of the area with their family, closely supported by social care. Upon their return to their local community, they are reportedly more likely to accept support from services and are in a better position to self-regulate and feel safer. It was noted that young people often find it difficult to report exploitation and may not readily come forward to receive support. The introduction of a safety planning tool such as the one being trialled by the YJB’s Eastern Region County Lines Pathfinder group would give young people the opportunity to work through a variety of options and interventions to support their future safety.