An emerging threat of child exploitation by criminal gangs – where vulnerable youngsters are ‘groomed’ then trapped in a sinister world – has been identified by South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner who is now taking steps to raise awareness among a range of authorities.
Dr Alan Billings is concerned that if allowed to go unchecked, the situation could develop into a problem with similarities to child sexual exploitation – the scandal which rocked Rotherham several years ago before being identified in other UK towns and cities.
A pattern has been identified with youngsters who have few prospects in conventional society being lured by the perceived glamour and easy money of acting as drug couriers being tempted into a world of crime by organised gangs.
Once embedded in the culture, they become trapped and unable to refuse what they are instructed to do.
The issue has been highlighted nationally with the so-called ‘county line’ arrangement where young people are used to transport drugs from big cities to rural and coastal communities, but Dr Billings believes the potential exists for a wider problem and is now working with colleagues in other parts of the public sector to try to increase awareness, in the hope early intervention will help eradicate the risk.
A difficulty with such work – as in CSE – is that victims frequently do not recognise themselves as such, making it more difficult for police and other authorities to both identify and work with them.
Dr Billings said his mind became focused on the issue during talks with the previous Home Secretary and other ministers about serious violent crime, using Government statistics.
“We noticed some people with blades are getting younger, school children,” he said.
“Gangs are starting to look for young people to use, to get their drugs moved around. Some is ‘county lines’, going to rural and coastal areas but some is within cities.
“It got me thinking, is there something developing? I don’t want to exaggerate it but you can see potential for drawing people into a way of life we would regard as abhorrent.
“But to some young people, especially if they are not doing well at school, or not in school, if someone is offering quick and easy money they can get drawn in.
“That is a grooming technique, offering an exciting way of life. But before you know it, you are in and they and then you have to do what you are told,” he said.
As a result, he is now raising the issue with a wide range of those who work with children, from South Yorkshire Police itself, to Youth Offending Teams and those with influence over children in society, such as school teachers and councils.
“The authorities see these victims as offenders, they are offenders if they are carrying knives and drugs,” he said.
“But they are victims. It is up to people like me to raise awareness of this wherever I can.
“I talk to (police) district commanders about this and the Sheffield district commander sits on the health and wellbeing board for the city and that is a good forum to talk about these issues.
“At this stage, it is raising awareness. The last thing we want to happen is that this is the place in the country where we turn away. For the sake of the children, we cannot afford to do that.”