Opportunities to protect children from criminal exploitation must not be missed, experts have warned

Friday, 19th February 2021, 12:34 pm
Updated Friday, 19th February 2021, 12:35 pm

By Millie Salkeld

Earlier interventions by schools, councils and the police are needed to stop children falling victim to criminal exploitation, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has said. 

It comes after analysis of Home Office figures showed more than 3,600 children were referred to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as potential victims of modern slavery in the first nine months of 2020.

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Of these, 2,140 (58%) were British nationals, of which 1,815 cases involved criminal exploitation – flags experts typically associate with the use of children by county lines drug gangs.

Ms Longfield’s office estimated in 2019 that 34,000 children aged 10 to 17 who were victims of a violent crime in the past 12 months were either a gang member or knew a gang member.  

The Commissioner undertook the research following high levels of violence involving children, to better understand how vulnerable youngsters were at risk of being recruited and criminally exploited by gangs.

But she warned that just 6,560 of these children were known to authorities – and that the remainder were slipping below the radar.

“At the moment those children don’t reach the threshold of being able to get support,” Ms Longfield said.

“If they aren’t at immediate risk the local authority may not help, the school may feel it is not their responsibility, the police will be responding to incidents when they happen, but it is that longer term protection and prevention that I want to see in place.

“I have been particularly keen to draw attention to those children who fall through the gaps at school. Those who are excluded from school either temporarily or permanently and what the impact is on their vulnerability.

“When I talk to people who are running pupil referral units or alternative provision when children have been excluded from schools they so often tell me there is a high proportion of children who are involved in gangs - very often 50 per cent. 

“Where there are children who are outside that school protection, those that are seeking to target them and exploit them know where to go and that is the kind of grim reality that we have seen in recent years.”

School exclusions in 2018/19 increased to 446,000, up from 419,000 in 2017/18. An all-party parliamentary group was set up in October last year to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and reduce preventable exclusions.

Rachel Lloyd, originally from Portsmouth, is a sex trafficking survivor and says her life would have been very different if agencies had intervened when she was at school.

At just 13 years old she started working at a number of jobs including in a night club to help her family get out of debt after dropping out of her scholarship to Portsmouth High School.

During her life she had experienced rape, violence, suicide attempts and dealing with her mother’s alcoholism. 

At the age of 17 she sold her Christmas presents and hopped on a boat to Germany hoping for a better life but was trafficked into the sex industry.

Now 44, Rachel, who was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) at Buckingham Palace last year, runs her own charity, GEMS, to support trafficking victims.

Speaking from her home in New York, she said: “When I think back there were so many missed opportunities when somebody could have stepped in to help me.

“When I dropped out of school at 13, it is not like that went unnoticed. I was raped when I was 13 and then I attempted suicide and was in hospital for a few weeks so there were definitely signs that things weren’t right.

“If I had been a social worker in the hospital I probably wouldn’t have let me go home with my mum as she was quite clearly not stable. 

“I have given it a lot of thought about where the intervention points were and honestly there were a lot.”

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For those children who have already fallen victim to criminal exploitation, there is support from organisations and charities across the UK including Barnardos.

In 2019/20, the charity helped almost 6,400 people through its child abuse and exploitation support services, including 2,900 in its child sexual exploitation services and 700 in its countertrafficking services.  

Amanda Naylor, who manages the charity’s strategy around child abuse and exploitation, thinks more collaborative working to prevent children being accessible to exploiters is needed. 

Ms Naylor said: “The top priority is safeguarding and sometimes that means we have to move a child quite quickly, however, moving a child from an area does not stop the exploitation of other children and the perpetrators will fill that gap.

“What we need to focus on is disrupting these gangs, how do we stop them from having access to children and young people, and that is our biggest challenge in the sector because we are always helping individual children without necessarily disrupting the source.

 “It does tend to require significant investment, in terms of police investigation, in order to disrupt the organised activity however that is the only way we are going to protect children.”