Saturday, November 26, 2022

How Essex Police are protecting young people exploited by County Lines drug dealers

SAFEGUARDING officers from our Op Raptor team are proactively identifying and offering protection to individuals they suspect are being exploited by drug dealing gangs.

The gangs target young and vulnerable people to help facilitate their criminal activity. Schoolchildren can be coerced into dealing drugs, and people have their homes taken over and used by the gangs as a base for their operations – known as cuckooing.

As people caught in these situations are often reluctant to ask for help or sometimes don’t even consider themselves to be victims of exploitation, our Op Raptor safeguarding officers now review custody records every morning to identify and approach people who may be in danger.

Detective Sergeant Mark Ghosh leads the team and he explained what signs might indicate that an individual needs help.

He said: “We look for people involved in the criminality or appear to have lifestyles that would fit a referral to one of our teams. That could be knife crime, violent drug-driven offences, County Lines, or gangs.

“We work alongside officers from the Prepare, Protect and Prevent team in our Serious Violence Unit and partners from outside policing including Re-Route, Justice & Care and the Children’s Society.

“If there’s a child gang member being exploited and they don’t want to speak to the police, they may engage with one of our partners. It takes perseverance but this may them get them into a position to where they’re confident enough to tell us who’s exploiting them. We can then pursue those people.

“People who’re arrested will generally not respond at all to safeguarding questions as they’re concerned it will impact on their case. However, there is risk to a family member or their children, the majority speak to us to make sure that risk is mitigated.”

During County Lines Intensification Week, safeguarding officers referred a number of suspected vulnerable young people to Re-Route, reached out to offenders being released from prison who have a history of County Lines and gang involvement, and carried out several checks on previously cuckooed properties.

In total, 18 people were safeguarded.

Mark’s team have also started to review every modern slavery investigation to make sure all opportunities are taken to protect any under-18s. Under modern slavery legislation, police can bring victimless prosecutions, meaning children or vulnerable people don’t have to face their abusers in court.

Mark said: “Children in gangs being forced to deal drugs is a form of modern slavery. It’s underground and I don’t think the people appreciate that this form of exploitation takes place. Modern slavery is still seen as something that doesn’t happen in the UK.

“We had some great successes in helping people away from gangs. We’ve referred children onto victim navigators and helped prepare them for job interviews as they rebuild their lives.

“Recently, we worked with a child who wanted to leave a gang but him and his family were subject to threats to kill. Alongside Justice & Care, we helped the family move out of county. Now they’re living a new life elsewhere away from the gang.”

What are the key signs a child or young person could be at risk?

Children travelling alone, especially if this is in school hours, late at night or on a regular basis. If they are being criminally exploited they may be sent significant distances and may be missing from home.

They may lost or appear as though they are in unfamiliar surroundings.

They may appear anxious, frightened or angry, but they may also appear disruptive or aggressive – a common response to trauma.

They could be in possession of multiple phones.

They might appear under the control or instruction of others, including people who are older than them and do not appear to be family members.

You may see them with large amounts of cash.

Signs of a child being at risk online, could include them talking about older or new friends they have met online, talking about gifts, money or in game credits they have received online, receiving large numbers of calls or messages, being worried about being away from their phone and having a new phone or more than one phone.

Learn about online safety, talk to them about it and take as much interest in their friends online as you would offline friends.

If you are at risk or know somebody who is, please call Essex Police on 101. If you would like to make an anonymous report you can contact independent charity Crimestoppers, by visiting their website or by calling 0800 555 111.

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