Fears that criminal gangs are recruiting Sunderland children for ‘county lines’ drugs trade
Concerns have been raised about drug gangs “getting their hooks” into youngsters in Sunderland.
It is estimated as many as 46,000 children across the country could have been forced to take part in the so-called “county lines” drug trade.
This includes gangs targeting vulnerable children in small towns and rural areas with some as young as 12 used to transport drugs and cash.
Coun Pat Smith, who represents the Silksworth ward, raised fears about the practice at a community meeting this month.
Speaking at the West Sunderland Area Committee on March 20, she said: “My problem is young people and it’s the drugs that they’re taking in the dark places in our areas.
“A lot of people don’t report it, they just pick the paraphernalia up and put it in the bin, and I know it’s difficult for police because they’re dark places and nobody sees anything.
“My problem is I’m hearing things in our area and my worry is that we get involved in this county lines problem.
“That they get their hooks into the kids in the area and it goes from there.
“It’s young people that I’m interested in, in knowing how bad it is in our areas.”
Last year, chief executive of Together for Children, Jill Colbert, told councillors county lines was a “big issue and threat to the safety of young people in Sunderland”.
Coun Smith, who sits as the chairman of the council’s Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee, has since asked for reassurance from police.
Insp Marie Pollock, speaking at Farringdon Youth and Community Centre, said tackling drugs involved a mix of intelligence and enforcement.
On a wider scale, she explained, drugs issues could be dealt with on a “need to know basis” by specialist teams due to links with organised crime.
The meeting heard neighbourhood officers were being encouraged to use stop and search powers alongside following up on local intelligence.
Other work includes visiting schools, looking at underlying causes and attempting to divert young people away from drugs.
Insp Pollock said: “In terms of patrolling dark areas, if nobody is there and nobody is reporting to us and we find paraphernalia we would discard of it.
“It would no longer be sufficient to even consider a forensic because numerous hands could have touched it.
“You would be looking at spending public money on doing a forensic test on whatever is left behind and it wouldn’t prove who has used it or what they have done with it.”
She added: “It’s always going to be that difficult. I understand where you’re coming from, I would feel the same I have children myself.
“My team are aware when they’re out on patrols and stopping and searching youths.”
Last year, the Home Office announced the launch of a £3.6 million National County Lines Coordination Centre – a team of experts from the National Crime Agency, police forces and regional organised crime units.
The team aim to develop national intelligence and work with partners to tackle wider issues which could result from county lines offending.
Police bosses have said there have been no county lines convictions in the Northumbria force area so far.
Despite this, officers have received extra training so any tell-tale signs of criminal activity can be spotted.
•To report any suspicious activity, call CrimeStoppers anonymously on 0800555111 or Northumbria Police on 101.
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service