How do County Lines groups exploit children and young people?
In 2017, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that there were 46,053 children and young people aged 10 – 18 who are part of a gang. As the County Lines problem has increased, it is likely that there are now even more children and young people in gangs.
County Lines groups consistently exploit children and young people to conduct risk heavy errands such as delivering drugs. It’s important to note that although it may appear as though some young people are willing members of these groups, it is more likely that they are the victim of various grooming and exploitation tactics.
County lines and the use of technology and social media
New technology and social media are key to the communication infrastructure, operating and recruiting practices of gangs. Many local gang members are viewed as celebrities and some have huge social media followings. They often feature in their gang‘s music videos: presenting their lifestyle in the context of excitement, money, lavish possessions and access to drugs.
Social media is also used by the gangs to direct, track and control young people. Whether using location-based services or live streaming facilities to oversee and or monitor where they are and what they are doing or the use of compromising and incriminating digital collateral. Their level of control can be all-encompassing.
The young and vulnerable are often groomed into becoming gang affiliates, in the process many are sexually exploited and coerced into participation in humiliating acts. This can include a process that normalises and encourages them to participate in harmful sexual behaviours they otherwise would not. This abusive and humiliating behaviour is inflicted on both boys and girls.
The digital images captured during such acts are kept and become the collateral by which a gang member can coercively control (blackmail) a young person by threatening to publish the image on social media or share them with others.
Gangs are known to create a situation where the child believes they financially owe the gang and will subsequently work for free, to work off their debt. They may also be subject to sexual exploitation to pay off debts from drugs they have been pressured into using by the gang. Children will not seek help from police, fuelled by fear of self-incrimination or retribution from gang members.
Gangs target vulnerable children including those that are homeless, looked after or living in unhappy homes. Th77% more likely to have an identified mental health need than other children assessed by children’s services – and twice as likely to have a history of self-harm.
Children with a ‘clean’ criminal record, known as ‘Clean Skins’ are recruited via social media. Since the beginning of the pandemic, children and young people have been spending more time online. This coupled with a lack of contact with safeguarding professionals has increased the risk of gang recruitment.
In many cases, young people have been unfairly criminalised for their involvement in county lines activities and treated as criminals rather than victims of crime. This means children may not receive the help, support and guidance they need and deserve as victims of crime.