Vulnerable children in county lines drugs networks: are we any closer to ‘borderless safeguarding'?

Joe Caluori, Head of Policy | Molly Corlett, Assistant Analyst | James Stott, Assistant Analyst

Thursday 24 September 2020


It is often argued that the exploitation of vulnerable children in county lines drugs networks proliferated due to the inability of local authorities and the Police to share information across geographical and professional boundaries. Five years since the first NCA County Lines intelligence assessment in 2015 are we any closer in 2020 to truly ‘borderless safeguarding’?

In the final long read for our research project County Lines and Looked After Children, funded by the Hadley Trust, we examine the barriers local authorities and the police face in disrupting the exploitation of vulnerable children in county lines across borders, drawing on interviews and focus groups with professionals and experts at local and national level.


Vulnerable young people are often highly mobile, moving home from area to area with parents and carers, perhaps due to housing pressures or other factors. If they are in care, young people may be moved to residential placements out of their home area, often at great distances from home. Sharing information between local authorities and police forces is essential to inform the plans which agencies must make to keep these young people safe from harm.


Jaden Moodie was 14 years old when he was murdered in 2018. The serious case review into the circumstances of his death showed that police, children’s services, youth offending and housing agencies failed to share information about a child who was being actively exploited. We spoke to John Drew, the author of Jaden’s serious case review.[1]


We asked John to reflect on the impact that information sharing failures may have had on Jaden’s life.

Jaden Moodie

"The murder of 14-year-old Jaden Moodie in January 2018 highlighted serious fault lines in the sharing of relevant information that could have been used by his local council to provide fuller protection for Jaden. In Jaden’s case, the fault lines went back more than two years when the Police where he then lived did not share information with children’s services or the local youth offending service about Jaden’s use of guns to threaten other children... he was 12 years old at the time.


"When, aged 13, he received a youth conditional caution for using a gun in a public place, the youth offending service was not aware of this background.


"Ten months later Jaden was found selling drugs in Bournemouth. A concerned and well-intended response from Dorset Police was limited because they had no information about his background (which by now should have involved reference to three gun-related incidents, as well as real concern expressed by his mother to the Police and others about his being groomed by an Organised Crime Group in another part of the country).


"Jaden was brought back to London with the briefest of accounts of what had happened in Bournemouth, and children’s services in Waltham Forest had a very limited picture of his background when they started their intervention with his family."


The council increased the priority that they gave to Jaden and his family two months before his death, following an incident with a gun. As a result, the serious case review found no direct and unequivocal link between these earlier failings in information sharing and Jaden’s murder. But as the quote from John Drew illustrates, agencies in three areas failed to share vital information about Jaden’s history. As a result, Waltham Forest Council made plans based on incomplete information. These events took place before the Home Office Serious Violence Strategy was published in 2018 and before the Rescue Response service was launched in London. One would hope that the learning from such cases and the new tools available through the NCLCC would improve information sharing and reduce these risks, but it is important to note that there has been no national mandate from central government to direct how local areas should assess vulnerability and share information.


Who cares? Distant placements and child exploitation

In our research for the Hadley Trust on County Lines and Looked After Children, we have repeatedly heard that vulnerable adolescents in the care system, including those who have come into care because of extra familial abuse and exploitation, are placed in registered children’s homes and unregistered settings at a distance from their home area. These children are vulnerable to exploitation in the locations they are placed, but they are also still vulnerable to coercion from gang members from their home area who might force them to deal drugs and recruit peers in the care system locally.


So, just how borderless are the current data sharing arrangements between the police, local authorities and other agencies responsible for safeguarding looked after children at risk of being drawn into county lines?

When a child is placed out of area, their home local authority must notify the host local authority. Unless it is an emergency placement, social workers at each authority should have a conversation about the placement and the child.


Yet the planning process does not address all contextual risks within the placement. There are two reasons for this. First, the placing local authority has no say over the other children who come to live in the same placement. If a child with a history of CCE is placed with other children who are known to be involved in county lines, and the home is not equipped to deal with that risk, local authority social workers have no way of knowing (unless they are told by the home or the child).


Second, local authorities do not routinely consult police about known risks in the area of the placement — for example, whether the structure of the local drug market could pose a recruitment risk, increasing the child’s vulnerability to county lines exploitation. Similarly, while the placing authority may hear about a child’s risks through a Multi-Agency Child Exploitation meeting, this usually happens only after a placement has been made. It also depends on police sharing information across force areas.


As a result, placing local authorities find themselves in an impossible position. Local authorities are rarely able to offer specialist provision for children who have been exploited, and so are more likely to place these children in out of area placements. At the same time, when a child who is at risk of exploitation is placed out of area, they may develop harmful networks through other children placed alongside them — putting them in further exploitative situations. Without more effective information sharing and assessments of contextual risk in the new placement, there is no way out of this bind.


In our interviews, we have heard about three main barriers to borderless safeguarding: disagreements about which agency was responsible for what, and who should allocate resources to children living out of area; differences in organisational culture; and misunderstandings about process, data recording and GDPR. For example, missing episodes — which can be an important indicator of county lines activity (see our use of missing data in the first and second blog — can become a source of conflict between local authorities, children’s homes and police.


‘When a child who has been placed in another area goes missing,’ one local authority social worker told us, ‘that then becomes a bit of a battle about who needs to pick up or maybe put resources and income [into] looking for that child’. It could be the police force in the area where the child has gone missing, the local authority which is currently home to the child, or the local authority which placed them there.


Missing episodes can be an important warning sign, and a rare chance to help those who are being exploited. In their review of twenty-one cases where a child was harmed through criminal exploitation, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel describes ‘critical moments’ where a child’s risk can be recognised and reduced. The response to a missing episode is one of these moments.


Each agency needs to understand its role in safeguarding vulnerable young people. But CCE raises questions about the relationships within and between organisations. Information must be shared between intelligence and safeguarding teams within the police, a detective inspector from the National County Lines Coordination Centre told us, and between police and local authorities. But he also warned against ‘police becoming social workers’. Police analysts and safeguarding leads should give social workers the information they need to do their job, and information should be shared through multi-agency case discussions. But this does not mean that responsibility should be shifted to police officers who lack the necessary relationships and expertise — even in a context where government funding for children’s services has sharply declined.



Possible solutions: risk assessments, the hub model and vulnerability tools

Earlier this year, the National County Lines Coordination Centre introduced a county lines flag on the Police National Computer. Forces are able to add contextual information about how a child was groomed via a drop-down list, and this information then becomes available to any officer or analyst with access to PNC. Last month, the NCLCC also added a Looked After Child marker to the Threat, Harm and Risk assessments carried out by officers. This means that in the future, information about the exploitation of looked after children can be shared with their home local authority, their host local authority and the police forces in each area.


We spoke to a detective inspector from the NCLCC about the new recording system, and about his ideal in terms of information sharing. He described the vulnerability tool developed by the NCLCC which has been taken up by 23 Police forces, detailing what is known about a child’s victimisation across time and place. At the moment, the process breaks down when a child moves to an area which doesn’t use the vulnerability tool. But ideally, he told us, every area would track vulnerability and share this information 'like a passport'. This information could later be used as evidence for a Section 45 defence, so that a child would not be prosecuted for crimes committed due to exploitation.


Any national recording system rests on local knowledge about a child’s history and risks. Though the monthly returns police forces submit to the NCLCC may be a useful prompt, local authorities and multi-agency safeguarding teams also need to work effectively together across areas. This determines when an intervention can take place in the life of a child, especially a looked after child. In the current system (see Figure 1 below) risk is addressed only after a placement is made. Figure 2 shows a possible alternative in which a multi-agency risk assessment meeting takes place earlier, before a placement is decided on (see Figure 2). In this scenario, the home local authority would become aware that a placement was not viable before it took place, and could seek out alternative placements.



Figure 1. The current system




Figure 2. The system with an additional, pre-placement risk assessment




What might borderless safeguarding look like?

In addition to these risk assessment meetings, local authorities, community safety and safeguarding teams need to routinely share information. One of our interviewees, a local authority social worker, felt that this could be achieved only through a co-located hub model for safeguarding children. Social care, early help, youth offending, education, health, probation and police would be based in the same place, and information sharing would take place via one local hub reaching out to another (or to a national organisation like the NCLCC).


Alternatively, some authorities have introduced meetings or working groups which focus on extra-familial risk. In Hackney, east London, Extra-Familial Risk Panels are held weekly to discuss safeguarding referrals. Core members include the MASH, the Youth Offending Team, the Contextual Safeguarding Team, Housing Needs and Benefits, CAMHS, Young Hackney and the Integrated Gangs Unit. Each panel discusses children who are at risk, but also locations, organisations and social media networks which may be linked to exploitation. This contextual approach could be a way to identify peer recruitment within care settings.


During the course of our research into county lines exploitation, we have engaged with numerous experts and professionals through interviews and focus groups, both at national level and in North Wales and Merseyside, the locations of our deep dives. One of our key lines of inquiry is to establish what truly borderless safeguarding for vulnerable young people at risk of criminal exploitation would look like, what the barriers are to achieving this goal and what the next steps are to get there.


Based on the conversations we have had at national and local level, we have identified four key essential features of borderless safeguarding:


  • There must be a tool for professionals to use to rate and flag the vulnerability of children at risk of criminal exploitation. This tool should be used consistently by agencies across England and Wales.

  • When children flagged as vulnerable move from one area to another, either with a parent or guardian or to a social care placement, information about their vulnerability must be seamlessly shared between the police and local authorities in both locations.

  • When children flagged as vulnerable are reported missing from school, home, or care - or if they are stopped by the Police or arrested, information on their vulnerabilities should be known and shared so this can inform the plan to safeguard them.

  • Local authorities and police forces should use data on their cohort of children flagged as vulnerable to build up a risk profile for their local area and design interventions to prevent criminal exploitation.


Conclusion

Our research suggests that the status quo is failing vulnerable young people. Yet we also found that our interviewees — whether from social care, the Police or third sector agencies — wanted things to be done better, and had concrete ideas about how this could be achieved. They wanted information to be shared across agencies and areas, with consistent recording practices and a reliable notification system. They wanted the risks around potential placements to be recognised, communicated and understood.


We asked John Drew, author of the Jaden Moodie Serious Case Review whether he believed that it was possible to achieve borderless safeguarding through the current evolutionary approach — or whether a more directive national approach was needed to make the necessary changes.


"During the review I spent time looking at how public bodies are improving their responses to children who are being exploited. Impressive people are doing good work in this field. But the pace of change is slow, evolutionary and localised. In the area of information sharing, as well in other areas, we are using twentieth century techniques and this localised and evolutionary approach to respond to a twenty first century challenge. This is not likely to succeed. I am completely convinced there needs to be a sea-change to bring about a national, mandated change. There is a need for a new public duty to share information, accompanied by clear mandatory guidance and centrally designed and funded technology if we are to hope to catch up the years we have lost to organised crime groups.”

John Drew is describing an approach resembling the approach taken to tackling CSE. There have been calls from many campaigners for a national CCE strategy, co-owned by the Home Office and the Department for Education. It is argued that such a strategy would enable the Police and local authorities to set the battle against county lines on a firmer footing, with local areas clear on their responsibilities, working to local plans to prevent exploitation.


Our research suggests that two years after the publication of the County Lines Action Plan and five years since the first NCA intelligence assessment of County Lines, the two main agencies responsible for safeguarding children, the Police and local authorities, still lack clear direction on how to flag, track and share information about vulnerable young people.


Although the tools to do this are within reach, the lack of a national strategy to combat CCE means that the gangs who organise the exploitation of young people in order to reduce their personal risks and maximise their profits, will continue to find gaps in the system that they can exploit.


Our final report into County Lines And Looked After Children will be published later this year. Read it first: sign up to our enewsletter.


[1] Waltham Forest Safeguarding Children Board (2020), Serious Case Review: Child C.

[2] The Howard League for Penal Reform (2017), Ending the criminalisation of children in residential care, briefing one.

[3] The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2020), It was hard to escape: safeguarding children at risk from criminal exploitation.

[4] Waltham Forest Safeguarding Children Board (2020), Serious Case Review: Child C.

[5] The Children's Society (2013), Here to Listen? Return Interviews Provision for Young Runaways.

[6] The Children’s Society, Action for Children, National Children’s Bureau, NSPCC and Barnardo’s (2018), Children and young people’s services: Funding and spending 2010/11 to 2017/18.

[7] Hackney Council (2019), Hackney Extra-Familial Risk Panel Protocol: Guidance for Multi-agency Partners.

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