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Children as young as nine recruited by county lines gangs, Britain’s biggest children’s charity reveals

Department of Education figures for child services in 2017/18  show 8,650 children were identified as “vulnerable” where they were being exploited by gangs, more than double the 3,680 in 2014/15.

Research by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield found 27,000 children in England were in gangs, while the National Crime Agency (NCA)  reported 2,000 county lines gangs now operating in England and Wales, up from 720 last year, with a turnover of £500 million from drugs.

“As we as a statutory organisation and the police have come to understand how they operate, targeting vulnerable children, serious and organised crime is having to change its business model and think about different ways of transporting drugs,” said Ms Gladwell.

“They are looking for those children who might not be the ones that you would think of. That’s why we are getting this information that it is happening to middle class kids who are going to good schools, who may not be the ones known to the police, that have not been in trouble before.

“They may be vulnerable because of mental health issues. They are usually a target because their parents don’t think they need the same protections around them because they are picking them up from school, not knowing or not aware they are being groomed through social media.”

Ms Gladwell said the key to tackling it was for schools, social services, police and parents to be closely linked up so that as soon as any child became vulnerable or a target action could be taken to safeguard them.

Children as young as nine are being recruited by county lines gangs as they increasingly target middle class “clean skins” to run drugs, the crime chief for Britain’s biggest children’s charity has revealed.

Lynn Gradwell, head of child criminal exploitation for Barnardo's, said increased police scrutiny was forcing the gangs to change their business model and recruit children who were less likely to be suspected of crime.

“The youngest are nine or ten,” she said. “If they are out on the street after school, they are being targeted. If you think about it, when you are getting children ready for senior school, you are starting to let them walk home. You start giving them that bit of freedom.”

Barnardo’s, which has a statutory role with police to tackle child exploitation, said research from its frontline staff found 30 per cent reported an increase in gangs using “clean skins” - defined as children with no criminal record from middle class backgrounds.

Of the 38 per cent of staff that had actually dealt with at least one child being criminally exploited, almost two thirds (62 per cent) said it involved selling drugs.

Ms Gradwell cited one case of a middle class child whose parents had disciplined him by “grounding him” at home and taken away his mobile phone.

So sophisticated is the intelligence networks of the gangs that he was identified and befriended. “The young lad got chatting with a gang member who offered him his spare phone,” said Ms Gradwell.

“They got friendly, then the next stage was: ‘I gave you a phone when you most needed it, now can you do me a favour and drop this package off.’”

After a series of similar jobs, he started getting a cut of the money, at which point the gang set up a “mugging” in which the drugs were stolen from the child. “He could not pay for them and became indebted,” said Ms Gradwell. 

“Some never get out of that. Luckily, he did. We got him some help through his school to detach him from it.”

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