Drug gangs behind ‘county lines’ operations use similar grooming tactics to those seen in South Yorkshire child sex abuse scandal, the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner has warned.
While the objective is different, those responsible for recruiting youngsters into drug trafficking exploit the same vulnerabilities as those who groom children as a precursor to sexual exploitation, said Dr Alan Billings.
Although South Yorkshire has been largely unaffected by the ‘county lines’ phenomenon, where inner-city drug gangs use children and young people to distribute drugs in rural or coastal communities, there was now evidence of it starting in the region, he said.
“It is a grooming operation which is very like sexual grooming, it is grooming into the world of criminality,” he said.
Those responsible targeted children from troubled families and disadvantaged communities, providing a substitute ‘family’ and access to money they would otherwise not have.
Providing them with drugs for their own use put them instantly into debt with the dealers who had befriended them, leaving them compelled to take part.
“We see it beginning here and we have to crack it before it gets a hold in large communities in South Yorkshire,” he said.
When the child sexual abuse scandal emerged in Rotherham several years ago, it emerged that 'grooming' of victims had gone largely unrecognised by the authorities, including police.
Because of their age and vulnerability, at the time of offences against them victims did not regard themselves as such in some cases, a contradiction which was not picked up by the authorities.
That has resulted in Operation Stovewood, a major operation which is still ongoing into historic child sex abuse crimes.
Dr Billings was speaking to an audience of residents in the Pennine market town of Penistone, where there have been long-standing concerns about drugs being brought into the district.
The complexion of crime gangs had changed in recent years, said Dr Billings, from an era where groups would actively mark out their territory by painting graffiti to identify themselves, to a point where they wanted to remain unseen.
“They are not about a patch, they are about a market and the market is drugs,” he said.
“They want to be low profile and that is why they draw in young people with no criminal record to do their work for them. The kids get drawn in,” he said.
In Penistone, police have been working to address residents’ concerns.
Insp Andrew Norton said: “We have stopped vehicles and don searches and recovered drugs. These people have been prosecuted.
“In the last month two people have been arrested and there have been more stop and searches.
“Just over a month ago, someone was detained for driving while under the influence of drugs in the centre of Penistone,” he said.
Officers had also been working with Penistone Grammar School to help with education against drugs, as well as intelligence gathering about those involved, he said.
Operations were continuing against suspects thought to be still operating in the district.