Telegraph Voices: What is being done to steer Sheffield's young people away from county lines drug gangs and child criminal exploitation?
For this week’s Telegraph Voices we asked four contributors to give us their views on the best approach to steering Sheffield’s young people away from county lines drug gangs and child criminal exploitation.
Louise Haigh – Shadow Policing Minister and MP for Sheffield Heeley
“All 43 police forces in England and Wales are now reporting county lines activity, up dramatically in just four years. Profits from this sickening trade are estimated, by the NCA, at £500 million per year.
“Every penny is wrung by a combination of coercion and exploitation of, in the main, children.
So often family breakdown, frequent missing episodes, behavioural and development difficulties and exclusions from mainstream schools precede children being forced into county lines activity.
“It is a ruthless business model that prays on a cohort of children who are being utterly failed.
“Parents, teachers and social workers in Sheffield all tell me the support simply isn’t there.
“It would be simply wrong, and an injustice to the most vulnerable, to deny the link between the retreat of vital services under austerity and the rise of county lines dealing.
“Spending for young people has fallen by 70 per cent and with it youth workers, youth clubs and vital services have fallen away.
“This has meant that of the 2.9 million children living at-risk, a truly staggering number in itself, 1.6 million of those have either patchy or non-existent support.
“What can we do for these children? We know for certain that you have to start early.
“Those children that experience childhood trauma, or who suffer developmental difficulties at school that aren’t recognised, or who have a difficult home life, are many more times more likely to be excluded from school and fall into criminal exploitation in their teens.
“We have to recognise Adverse Childhood Experiences, and developmental and behavioural difficulties early and put in place the support they need to overcome them.
“Early intervention by caring public services can dramatically improve people’s lives and help children to deal with trauma.
“Government cuts have made life unimaginably difficult for dedicated public servants. Yet there is still work that can be done in Sheffield.
“Our school exclusions are unacceptably high and there is a clear link between exclusion and crime. Our city should aim for zero exclusions, alternative effective provision for those who can’t last in mainstream schooling, and we must ensure that every child with Special Educational Needs has the support necessary to stay in school.
“And we must ensure, not just in Sheffield but nationally, proper mental health support for children with behavioural difficulties and who have suffered bereavement.
“One of the most common factors I find in young offenders or indeed victims of youth violence is a bereavement-related trauma.
“It will not be cheap to put the intervention programmes in place that can keep our vulnerable children place; but the alternative is the waste of young lives that we see through county lines exploitation; where criminal gangs deny our children their future with effortless ease.
“Communities are ahead of politicians on this; they instinctively accept that we have a responsibility to the most vulnerable amongst us. Now we must act.”
Dr Alan Billings – Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire
“We are just waking up to some of the worst effects of nine years of austerity.
“The rise in crime, especially violent crime associated with gangs and drugs, is one symptom.
“I say ‘symptom’ because much of the increased criminality has its roots in the way so many individuals and families have faced growing poverty – hence the food banks – in enclaves where despair flourishes – hence the drugs.
“Austerity has been the thief of hope.
“People are barely managing financially, and so many organisations that would once have offered support - at least to the young people - are gone.
“The decimation of youth services has left many vulnerable young people with nowhere to go in the evening and no adults to talk to outside school hours.
“Apart from the gangs.
“The gangs who deal in drugs see opportunities here. So they ruthlessly target the vulnerable: children from troubled or just poor families.
“They become for them surrogate families, substitute youth workers.
“The grooming process begins with a gang member offering friendship.
“They may offer a gift – a pair of expensive trainers, perhaps – in return for a favour.
“The favour is to deliver a package to an address or location the gang member specifies – and those requests continue.
“And so the trap is sprung and the young person is helping to supply class A drugs. How can he escape from this when he is guilty of criminality and when the kindly gang member now makes it clear that violence will quickly follow if the young person tries to back out.
“But, in any case, gang life doesn’t look so bad: gang members may not have jobs but they have money.
“County lines just extends the operation from Sheffield to townships and villages in other parts of South Yorkshire or beyond.
“If all we can offer is more arrests, we risk criminalising cohorts of young people and making a life of crime almost inevitable.
“So we must get upstream of crime and tackle its root causes. That is not really a police matter. It involves putting back proper jobs and a proper youth service.
“And above all, hope.”
Dan White, Head of Targeted Services and Health at Sheffield Futures
“We know that criminal gangs are tragically targeting children and young people to carry out criminal acts on their behalf.
“These gangs prey on the vulnerabilities children and young people may have, like a need for friendship and a sense of belonging.
“Sheffield Futures works in partnership with key statutory agencies to combat child criminal exploitation, work overseen by the Sheffield Safeguarding Children Board.
“Young people identified as at risk of exploitation are allocated a key worker who works with them and their family to tackle the specific issues they face.
“Many of these young people are supported by our Community Youth Teams who work all across the city.
“We also lead a Home Office funded project, Project 0114, that takes an early intervention or preventative approach to tackling child criminal exploitation and associated violent crime.
“This targeted work serves to bolster the youth work we undertake in our communities which at its core aims to keep young people safe and provide a sense of purpose, direction, belonging and inspiration to achieve in life.
“All of this work is closely linked to Operation Fortify – South Yorkshire’s partnership approach to dealing with serious violent crime and organised criminality.
“Since June, information and skills-based sessions focussed on preventing child criminal exploitation and exploring the effects of knife and gun crime have been delivered in primary and secondary schools across Sheffield.
“These sessions are co-delivered by youth workers and specially trained young people, alongside highly trained youth workers.
“A second strand to the programme draws on the expertise of Sheffield Futures, Sheffield City Council, ACT Sheffield, The Unity Gym Project, Broomhall Girls Group, Manor Castle Development Trust, My Life Project, Princes Trust, and Change Grow Live (CGL) across our communities.
“Through this work, we aim to equip our children and young people with the knowledge and awareness to be able to steer clear of the serious threat that comes from organised crime and the associated violent crime we are
unfortunately seeing become more and more frequent across the city.
“And, in the areas we know are being targeted by criminals intent on exploiting our young people we hope to engage children in inspiring activities and at the same time offer safe spaces where young people can learn and thrive.”
Caroline Watts, regional head of service for the NSPCC
“Across the country, children and young people have increasingly become targets of cross-border, or County Lines gangs.
“They might be attracted towards life in a gang through peer pressure, a feeling of belonging or on the promise of gifts or rewards. They might also be threatened into behaviour they are not comfortable with.
“Being part of a gang can make children and young people feel accepted by their peers, or part of a family, but can leave them exposed to abuse and exploitation, changing their lives forever.
“One young girl told Childline: ‘I joined a gang so I would stop being bullied, but some of the things other gang members do has started to really bother me.
‘They say really offensive things to people and steal stuff. I don’t know who I can talk to. I’m worried. I want to get out’.
“Young people involved in ‘county lines’ are often coerced into taking huge risks moving drugs and weapons for the benefit of others, and can face serious punishments and repercussions if caught.
“We must be clear that young people who are criminally exploited are victims of child trafficking, and need access to appropriate support to ensure their safety.
“A teenage boy who phoned Childline told our counsellors: ‘I’ve thought about leaving, but I realised it isn’t that simple and I think I’d miss it because being in a gang is like being in a family.
‘We look out for each other and are respected by people – I don’t know if I’d cope if things weren’t like that for me anymore’.
“If you notice your child acting unusually, becoming secretive or refusing to engage, or in possession of money, clothes, phones or other items you did not buy them, this could be a sign they are being groomed – not necessarily for sexual abuse, but by those who would use them for potentially dangerous or criminal behaviour.
“We know that children in this situation are often too scared to seek the help they need, but Childline is there 24/7 for support and advice on 0800 1111, and adults worried about a child’s welfare can call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.”