They are becoming the foundation for many criminal enterprises – children.
Their exploitation is a key way in which profits are made from supplying drugs and even moving firearms.
Gangsters groom them with ‘love”, attention, blackmail, cash, or a new pair of trainers.
Once in their grip they are sent from Greater Manchester to rural towns up and down the UK to sell weed, heroin, crack, and cocaine.
In inner-city Manchester, children as young as 15 have been armed with guns by older criminals to do their dirty work. Over 1,000 children across the region are known to have links to gangs.
Last year a child groomed into criminal activity was blackmailed after being persuaded to share nude pictures online.
The youngster was offered gaming credits in exchange for the photos, which were then used to draw them into organised crime.
It was the first case of ‘sextortion’ against a child in the region, according to Greater Manchester’s deputy mayor.
Those targeted by criminals can be vulnerable or even academically gifted. But they are charmed by the ‘gangster life’ and once snared are controlled by misguided ‘loyalty’ or the sinister threat of violence.
New figures show a disturbing trend. The use of children by organised crime appears to be increasing.
But GMP has launched an operation to identify gangs running county lines.
Latest figures for referrals of children to social care in Greater Manchester indicate a rise in cases which may indicate that children are being criminally exploited.
They show the number in which ‘gangs’ were identified as a factor at the end of assessments more than doubled from 484 in 2017/18 to 1,022 in 2019/20.
The number in which trafficking was identified doubled from 85 to 178. There was a 26% rise in cases in which children going missing was flagged, from 1,215 to 1,533.
Now a leading charity, the Children’s Society, is to provide support for parents of children in the region who have been subjected to county lines exploitation.
‘The thought of my son being in places no child should be’
One mother who they have already helped has described how was she at her “wit’s end” as she saw her son change from a bright 13 year-old to a remote “scumbag”.
Jenny only found out her son, Robbie, was being groomed by an organised crime group when he was arrested and charged with intent to supply class A drugs.
Aged, 15, Robbie had been told by the men who controlled him just hours earlier that they would kill him if he refused to transport drugs.
In a police station 75 miles from his home he was left mute by fear. He knew that if he spoke to police there would be consequences.
With hindsight there were signs that Jenny later realised were clues as to what kind of life Robbie had become trapped by. He was caught shoplifting at a local supermarket and then went missing for three weeks.
When he was returned home by police, he refused to say where he had been. But officers told Jenny they suspected he was being groomed by a gang to go “up country” and sell drugs for them.
Jenny said: “I hadn’t actually spoken to him, but I had spoken to one of the boys who had actually set up the meeting for him to go and sell drugs. He had fed me so many lies throughout it, and the stuff he was coming out with was quite horrible. He would say ‘oh he doesn’t want to return, he says he hates you guys’.
“Throughout this time I lost myself. The thought of my son being in places no child should be. My mind would wander and my imagination would take me to the coldest, darkest drug dens, where I would imagine him sitting being forced to stay awake to work for these vile criminals.
“When my son returned I made the difficult decision to leave my home and job to help my son escape the vicious circle of returning to his groomer. I lost friends who couldn’t understand why I was giving up so much, when clearly to them he had made a choice. “
Despite the indications that her son was a victim and being exploited the Crown Prosecution Service decided to prosecute him. The thought of losing Robbie to a custodial sentence drove Jenny to thoughts of taking her own life.
After seven torturous months the court cleared Robbie of all charges after it was established he was a victim who had been trafficked and exploited.
Thanks to therapy provided by The Children’s Society Jenny and her family have rebuilt their lives. Robbie is back safe at home and passed his GCSEs.
‘I was at my wits’ end and I needed some help. Before this happened, I knew absolutely nothing about criminal exploitation. Now I know there were signs I missed, such as when I found alcohol, a weed crusher and Rizla paper in his room.
“Although we have gone through this heart-destroying, roller coaster of a journey that has shattered not just Robbie’s and my life, there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Jenny.
A breakdown of figures for Greater Manchester reveal how many children in care in each local authority area was found to have had links with gangs.
The highest number was in Manchester with 250, followed by Salford, 134, and Oldham and Tameside, 103 each.
The other areas were: Stockport, 97; Rochdale, 83; Wigan, 79; Bolton, 63; Bury, 61; and Trafford, 49.
Support launched to help parents and carers
The Children’s Society’s national Disrupting Exploitation service, which runs in Greater Manchester, Birmingham and London, is employing new workers to support parents and carers whose children are being exploited or thought to be at risk of criminal exploitation.
The service is part-funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, as well as by a grant from a generous philanthropist.
The charity believes that with better education and support, parents and carers can be vital allies in helping children exit situations in which they are criminally exploited, including through county lines.
The new workers will help spot the warning signs, and improve communication with their children.
Sessions can take place in person, online or by phone depending on the wishes of the parent or carer.
Becky Fedia, National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation Programme, said: “Support from a parent or carer can be an important step in a child safely exiting an exploitative situation through which they have been groomed then left terrified and traumatised by threats, violence and abuse.
“Changes in children’s behaviour like going missing, using drugs or becoming angry and secretive can put a huge strain on family relationships. Finding out that exploitation is to blame for this will seem daunting and scary for parents, causing worry, stress and feelings of helplessness.
“We know that parents and carers can be crucial allies both in helping children and in providing insight and information that can help disrupt perpetrators of exploitation. But, too often, they do not get support and are overlooked by statutory agencies.
“This new help will not only benefit parents and carers, but also their children and any siblings who may also be vulnerable to exploitation.
“During this further lockdown, this will be particularly important, because criminals adapted their tactics to continue grooming young people and exploit their vulnerabilities, including online, in response to the first lockdown.”
‘We will pursue those involved in these crimes’
Chief Inspector Chris Mossop from GMP’s Challenger Unit said: “Protecting the most vulnerable members of our community is a priority for GMP, and as part of this work, we look to prevent those that have been subject to, and are at risk of exploitation.
“County Lines means those engaging in this type of criminality tend to be transient, and we are committed to working in partnership with colleagues across our policing network and key partners to ensure criminals cannot hide by crossing into other force boundaries.
“We are currently running an enhanced operation known as Op Flood, with the aim of disrupting and dismantling identified and new and emerging organised crime gangs running county lines within and beyond Greater Manchester. This operation also includes disrupting those involved in the recruitment of individuals used in the running of county lines.
“Op Flood is driven by intelligence, and focused resources will be deployed in line with evidence we have, and continue to collect. We will proactively pursue individuals with a view to arrest offenders, remove controlled drugs from the streets, tackle illicit finances and investigate upstream supply.
“In addition, it is important we are all aware of the signs-looking out for others is everyone’s responsibility, and even more so in the current climate. Members of our local communities can play an integral role in providing intelligence that may support GMP, local authorities, and a multitude of other agencies who collectively set out to combat County Lines.
“I would encourage everyone to be aware of what to look out for, and if you do have any concerns, please do come forward. The intelligence provided will be acted upon, and will help us protect further victims being exploited by organised crime.
“I hope this serves as a warning that we will continue to pursue those involved in this criminal activity, and also reassure the public that preventing and protecting those involved in county lines is at the heart of the multi partner approach we take.”
Spotting the signs:
As organised crime can take many different forms, there can be various different signs to look out for. Some of the most common are:
Unexplained gifts and cash
More than one phone (often known as a graft phone)
Lots of travel tickets such as bus and train tickets
Increased missing from home episodes
Secretive or withdrawn from family and/or friends
Lying- unable to retell a story without confusion or holes in the story
Receiving excessive calls or messages from ‘new friends’
Getting picked up or dropped off by unknown people in unknown cars
Bev Hughes, Greater Manchester ‘s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime and Fire, said:“I very much welcome the launch of this new service for parents and carers in our city-region. We are working hard to try to prevent children and young people falling into the hands of these criminal gangs, being exploited and often suffering threats and violence. This new service to help parents and carers identify when their child may be at risk and giving them advice and support will be another important way to help keep young people safe.
“Over the last two years, Greater Manchester has invested funding to implementmulti-agencyexploitation safeguarding teams who have been monitoringand responding toreferrals throughout the pandemic. When referrals dropped at the start of the pandemic we were concerned, but now they are back to more usual levels, as young people, especially vulnerable young people, have more access to trusted adults.
“Greater Manchester and our partners working in child criminal exploitation servicescontinueto adapt the wayofworkingas the latest lockdown continues so nobody has to suffer in silence–and I urge anybody who spots the signsof exploitation to report it immediately.”