Organised crime gangs take advantage of pandemic to target children (2024)

Vulnerable children are at increasing risk of being criminally exploited but police forces and other agencies often lack the training and skills to effectively protect them, research by Barnardo’s reveals.

The UK’s leading children’s charity has found that during the Covid-19 pandemic organised criminal gangs moved their exploitation of children into busier public places like supermarket carparks, where it was easier to conduct activity during lockdowns without arousing suspicion.

After many months of isolation from trusted adults and with many families struggling to pay bills or put food on the table, gangs have also been preying on these vulnerabilities when targeting young people and entrap them with a promise of ‘easy’ money.

Youth workers and frontline child criminal exploitation (CCE) practitioners also say that young people who had been coerced to carry drugs were forced to wear delivery driver uniforms or high vis jackets, allowing them to hide under the disguise of legitimate activities.

And Barnardo’s frontline workers supporting trafficked children say that there had been an increase in children and young people being targeted by criminal gangs online, which is supported by recent findings from Ofcom.

In 2020, more children than ever before were identified as potential victims of trafficking with exploitation being the most prevalent cause.

In 2020, the number of children assessed by children’s social care of being at risk from gang involvement increased from 10,960 to 14,700.

Meanwhile, those involved in trafficking rose from 2,490 to 3,010, and children involved in drug misuse increased from 23,710 to 29,170. In 2019/20 nearly 7,000 children were arrested for drug offences. A further 2,063 were charged with weapon offences. Many of these children will have been groomed and exploited to commit these offences.

Yet, despite the increased risk, Barnardo’s says there is still too often a lack of clear understanding or consistency from relevant professionals, such as the police, social care and health, of how children are exploited by criminals or how to support them rather than criminalise them. According to Barnardo’s services, identification and referral often comes after months or years of exploitation.

This is further evidenced by The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel that brings together lessons learned from Serious Case Reviews where a child has died as a result of serious youth violence and/or CCE in its report ‘It was hard to escape- Safeguarding children at risk from criminal exploitation’.

One of their key recommendations focussed on the inconsistency in support for children at risk of CCE:

Even when local areas and practitioners know the children at risk of being drawn into criminal exploitation, many are not confident about what they can do to help them.

“There are a number of different approaches being taken across the country but little reliable evidence of what works, and no central point where effective evidence is evaluated and disseminated.”

Eighteen months on from this report, children are still being missed and criminalised rather than safeguarded.

As part of its Exploited and Criminalised report, which is published today (October 21st 2021), Barnardo’s made a Freedom of Information Act request asking police forces about the number of CCE victims in their areas.

Alarmingly, although the majority of relevant police forces (30 out of 47) replied to the FOI request, only one police force was able to provide any significant data on the criminal exploitation of children in their area.

Most said the only way to fully answer the request would be to carry out a prohibitively expensive manual search of arrest reports. Some even asked what crimes we thought constituted CCE.

Barnardo’s says if police forces are not routinely identifying and recording possible CCE and there aren’t enough resources for agencies to investigate how or why a child has been coerced into criminal activity, it is inevitable that victims will continue to be criminalised rather than safeguarded.

To stop this from happening the charity says the Government needs to make changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Firstly, it wants the Bill amended to include a legal definition of child criminal exploitation.

This would also bring the approach to child criminal exploitation in line with the approach to child sexual exploitation. Defining child sexual exploitation in law after a Government consultation in 2016 has helped frontline professionals to better identify child victims and those at risk.

It also wants the Serious Violence Duty on local agencies, which is included in the Bill to ensure every local area develops a strategy to specifically tackle CCE and serious youth violence.

Barnardo’s is also calling on the Government to increase specific funding for youth services, as part of a wider package of early intervention support in every community.

This call comes after pre-pandemic research published in May 2019 showed how areas experiencing the largest reduction in spending on young people have seen bigger increases in knife crime.

At the time, Barnardo’s and youth charity Redthread analysed five years of data from council youth service budgets and knife crime figures, on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction.

Two years on the problem is now thought to be much worse.

Barnardo’s interim co-CEO Michelle Lee-Izu said: “Barnardo’s has long warned about the growing threat of child criminal exploitation, so it is alarming that agencies are still too often failing to identify victims, even when there are clear signs of harm.

“Our services are supporting children as young as nine who are being criminally exploited, and we’re deeply concerned that without Government action the problem will spiral even further out of control. These children are victims and need the right support to help them recover, rather than being criminalised. Yet evidence from our frontline workers shows children and families can experience months of exploitation, fear and violence before help arrives.

“We know children who have already had a tough start in life are particularly vulnerable, including those in foster care and residential care, and children who have been excluded from school.

“That’s why we’re calling on the Government to change the law so that children who are being exploited by gangs are identified and supported early. It’s also vital that this month’s Spending Review includes long-term, sustainable funding for local areas to invest in youth services, counselling and other support for young people at risk.”

Click here to read the Exploited and Criminalised report.

Supportive Quotes

Stella Creasy MP said: "Child criminal exploitation thrives off of the ignorance and confusion of police forces and other agencies. Without a clear definition of child criminal exploitation, and leadership from Government, frontline workers are being left without the tools they need to protect children and young people from criminal activity.

"The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides the Government with an opportunity to protect children and young people at risk from organised crime, by formally defining child criminal exploitation in law, giving agencies on the front line the tools they need to tackle this and ensuring that young people aren't forced onto the streets by threats of violence."

Redthread Chief Executive John Poyton said: “As the world recovers from the pandemic it is imperative that the most vulnerable children and young people, victims of child criminal exploitation, are not further lost in the gaps between agencies there to protect them. This report’s recommendations need to be heeded to ensure the police crime bill does not miss the opportunity to ensure we do not fail victims of CCE at the start of their life course.”

Victims' Commissioner for London Claire Waxman said:“The findings of this report by Barnardo’s add to the mounting evidence that police forces must do more to protect children. As this report highlights, training is fundamental to ensuring that the police and other agencies are able to recognise and act on this exploitation.

“The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides an opportunity to make positive change, including the introduction of a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. The Government must do all within its power to ensure children are safeguarded, agencies must work closely together to improve their response to exploitation, and services for young people need to be prioritised – recognising their importance in providing support and decreasing the likelihood of criminal exploitation.”

Iryna Pona, Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, said: “We found in our Counting Lives report that risks of child criminal exploitation are not being identified early by professionals - and even when they are spotted later many children are criminalised rather than being offered support as victims.

“This important research from Barnardo’s shows that, sadly, this is still happening.

“Our practitioners directly supporting children who are exploited as well as national projects working in partnership with social care and police to improve responses to exploited children report that there has been some progress. However, they tell us that responses to criminally exploited children remain inconsistent across the country.

“We urge the Government to act now to ensure that there is no postcode lottery in protecting children who are ruthlessly exploited by criminal groups. Alongside Barnardo’s, we are calling for a definition of child criminal exploitation in law that would provide greater clarity for professionals working with children and make it easier to prosecute the perpetrators who are grooming them.”


Fact Box

What is child criminal exploitation?

Child criminal exploitation is when someone under the age of 18 is manipulated, deceived, coerced or controlled by another person (or persons) and made to undertake criminal activity.

It is a form of child abuse that often inflicts serious harm on children and young people, destroys families, ruins childhoods and can set up a vulnerable child for a life in and out of the criminal justice system.

Key stats about CCE

Child criminal exploitation has seen an increase in prominence in recent years and there are indications that it is a growing problem.

Like much of the abuse of children, the hidden nature means it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the extent of CCE that is taking place in the UK.

In 2019, the then Children’s Commissioner for England estimated there were 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation who had not been identified by services.

The number of ‘children in need’ assessments that identified gangs as a factor increased by 34% in 2020.

The statistics from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) released in 2021– the UK’s official system for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery – show that 4,946 potential victims were exploited as children in 2020, an almost 10% increase on the previous year.

Criminal exploitation was the most prevalent exploitation type among children referred to the NRM - with 2,544 children identified as potential victims.

What are exploited children made to do?

Barnardo’s services work with children as young as nine who are being criminally exploited.

Children can be threatened and blackmailed, subjected to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and are often at risk of serious violence.

The most recognised form of child criminal exploitation is ‘county lines’ where young people are coerced to carry drugs and weapons from one area to another to service complex drug supply chains.

However, child criminal exploitation can take other forms.

For example, children can be exploited through a range of organised criminal activity from forced begging to being made to work in cannabis factories or stealing cars or alcohol to order.

Who is targeted by the criminal gangs?

A child from any background can be coerced into child criminal exploitation, however gangs often target particular groups who are more vulnerable, such as those in care, with additional mental health needs and children who live in a household where there is domestic abuse.

Notes to editors: The FOI request was sent to 47 relevant police forces and at the date of publication 30 had responded.

Their responses in the main were that this information was either not recorded or not easily accessible. CCE continues to not be routinely flagged as a potential issue that needs further investigation by the police when they apprehend children even if the signs of exploitation may be there. They also do not routinely record the number of children referred through the National Referral Mechanism, which is the process for children suspected of being trafficked.

Organised crime gangs take advantage of pandemic to target children (2024)
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