Action needed to protect vulnerable children targeted by crime gangs during pandemic
Vulnerable children in the UK’s towns and cities are increasingly at risk of being criminally exploited, yet police forces and other agencies often lack the training and skills to effectively protect them.
Research by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that during the height of the pandemic organised criminal gangs moved their exploitation of children into busier public places like supermarket carparks, as 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, says the charity, gangs have also been preying on these vulnerabilities when targeting young people and entrap them with a promise of ‘easy’ money.
The research also revealed accounts from youth workers and frontline child criminal exploitation (CCE) practitioners about how young people had been coerced to carry drugs were forced to wear delivery driver uniforms or high visibility jackets, enabling them to hide under the disguise of legitimate activities.
Frontline workers for Barnardo’s who support trafficked children also say there has been an increase in children and young people being targeted by criminal gangs online, which is supported by recent findings from information watchdog Ofcom.
‘Clear lack of understanding about how children are exploited’
In 2020, more children than ever before were identified as potential victims of trafficking with exploitation being the most prevalent cause. At the same time, 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.
As part of its Exploited and Criminalised report, Barnardo’s also made a Freedom of Information Act request asking police forces about the number of CCE victims in their areas.
Although most of the relevant police forces (30 out of 47) replied to the statutory request, only one could provide any significant information on the criminal exploitation of children in that 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 the charity deemed to be ‘CCE’.
Barnardo’s wants the Government to increase specific funding for youth services, as part of a wider package of early intervention support in every community. This also follows pre-pandemic research published in May 2019 which showed how areas experiencing the largest reduction in spending on young people have seen bigger increases in knife crime. Two years on the problem is now thought to be much worse.
Michelle Lee-Izu, the charity’s interim CEO, 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.
Evidence from our frontline workers shows children and families can experience months of exploitation, fear and violence before help arrives
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.
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.
“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,” added Lee-Izu.