A children’s charity is warning that another lockdown could put young people at further risk of exploitation from county lines drugs gangs.
The Children’s Society said the issue had grown in the last five years but that the pandemic and festive period could escalate the situation.
“At Christmas time and during holiday periods children can often feel more isolated and they may require more support,” said James Simmonds-Read, who runs its exploitation prevention programme.
“We’ve got some real concerns at the moment, while we might be facing new lockdown restrictions, that children may face school closures.
“And learning from previous lockdowns we know that when children are not accessing education they’re often at more risk from perpetrators looking to control and exploit them.”
County lines criminal groups get drug dealers in cities to establish networks in towns and rural areas, using young and vulnerable people to carry, store and sell drugs.
The charity found that more than four out of five parents and carers were concerned about children being exploited to sell drugs, and the same proportion were worried about young people being groomed online by criminals.
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Tina (not her real name) believes her 14-year-old son “just changed” after he was targeted both in person and online by county lines gangs.
“He would come home, not talk to me, be in his bedroom more,” she told Sky News.
“And I would find things in his room, like necklaces with bad boy signs, rings, bandanas, and I thought, what’s going on here?”
Tina said the gang was involved in robberies and drugs: “They groom young boys because they’re vulnerable, by showing off with their cars, their flats, apartments – even girlfriends, girls, showing them sort of like employing them.
“You know, one day you can have this if you work for us.”
She also thinks her son is lucky to be alive after they set a dog on him.
“Either they were trying to kill him or I think they were trying to frighten him,” said Tina.
“He probably didn’t do what they wanted him to do and they must have said, ‘well if you don’t do this, we’ll put a dog on to you’,” she added.
The charity is calling for a national strategy to tackle child criminal exploitation and a campaign to raise awareness of the problem so that parents, carers and others can spot the signs and report them.
A government spokesperson said it had “ramped up activity to dismantle the business model” behind county lines gangs.
“We will do whatever necessary to crackdown on the heinous gangs exploiting vulnerable people and through our 10 year drugs strategy we are investing up to £145m in the County Lines Programme,” said a statement.
It said police had already closed 1,500 lines, made over 7,400 arrests, safeguarded more than 4,000 vulnerable adults and children, and “committed to the largest ever single increase in treatment and recovery”.
“Tech companies must prevent harmful material on their platforms,” the statement added.
“The Online Safety Bill compels them to take robust action to keep users safe, by removing and limiting the spread of illegal content and doing more to protect children.”