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Just another nuisance misper or a trafficked victim?

An organisation with first-hand experience of criminal child exploitation calls for radical changes to police tactics and mind sets in County Lines missing person cases.

Just another nuisance misper or a trafficked victim?

Date - 5th June 2020
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If readers attended the Missing Persons Conference in Hull at the end of January they may recall our presentation and therefore appreciate the context behind the title of this piece.

For the benefit of others, it concerns the police response to the epidemic of missing incidents across the country, involving predominantly boys, who have been cleverly, quietly and subtly snatched by County Lines gangs and sucked into the criminal underworld as drug-runners – a scourge that has generated an army of groomed and/or exploited victims of Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE). This has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now the most common type of Child Exploitation in the UK. In the period October 2019 to March 2020, 1,124 male minor referrals were recorded. Of these 18 were also sexually exploited. These figures though alarming, are a huge underestimate of the scale as high numbers are still not being recognised and referred as victims.

Perceptions of choice

Before readers switch off thinking this is yet another snowflake painting drug-dealers as hard done by victims – bear with me. Though this offering is about CCE victims, I accept not all young people involved in County Lines are victims. The word ‘choice’ crops up without fail when police speak of young people they view as having actively sought out this criminality, a lifestyle or career choice of sorts. However behind the perceived presentation of ‘choice’, if we care to rewind the journey that led these young people to the crack-head, the trap-house, the abuse (including using their own bodies as a means of lethal drug-storage) or the stabbings, we see a plethora of harrowing triggers not of their making.

This may be exploitation or emotional and violent harm by parents or family members, an upbringing littered with negligence and/or abuse in the care system, or addiction, substance misuse or homelessness, all leading to criminality as a survival mechanism when no other options show themselves. Whatever the catalyst, no child is born bad, and if we go far back enough, behind every child perceived as bad will be an adult who failed them somewhere along the line.

Pied Piper tactics

So, why are huge numbers of children going missing, ‘country’, ‘cunch’ or ‘OT’ (slang terms which instantly influence the negative categorisation and channelling of these trafficked victims down an offender route)? Increasingly these children are now from non-care backgrounds, with parents and carers who are protective factors and with no criminal backbone, not even a library book violation. Yet their children are sucked into criminality as drug-dealers through a Pied Piper tactic into a world hitherto alien to them, where the entry route looks inviting but ends up lethal if not fatal, and sees them trafficked near and far as disposable runners.

They are mere low hanging fruits, collateral damage, a shield behind which the real perpetrators reign. We need to get past the rhetoric that only a certain type of child is vulnerable to this calling - those from adverse childhood experiences, deprived backgrounds, chaotic homes, single or absent parent, lacking hope or opportunity or already known to services. Whilst these were and remain good ingredients for recruitment, the last five years has seen a boom in children being recruited from the opposite extreme. For good reason. These children are not on anyone’s radar so prove to be an excellent operational choice: they’re unlikely to come to negative police attention or be susceptible to stop and search, in the event they are, they are more likely to be NFA, being minors with no criminal record.

Grooming or Coercion and threats?

It’s a winning model for Modern Day Fagin drug gangs who are constantly looking to ensure their activities remain undisrupted. These kids’ minds quickly become rewired and moulded into mini-gangsters, a method that yields additional results than would coercion or threats because it brings unquestionable loyalty to their masters and associates and guarantees no comment interviews. Because the kids don’t acknowledge exploitation, the possibility of coercion and threats are dismissed by police. Because they feel insulted by their parents’ assertion that they’re groomed, police and social workers rely heavily on the ‘child states not groomed’ as gospel and the onus falls even heavier on parents to prove exploitation.

CCE victims are so subtly groomed they aren’t even aware of this and most only begin to recognise it in their twenties at the earliest. Additionally, for gang-affected boys within County Lines, the term ‘groomed’ has connotations to girls and paedophiles, hence it becomes easy to understand why they don’t see themselves as groomed. Yet if they are probed using different vocabulary, the response demonstrates the immense power and influence of subtle exploitation through very telling statements about how they were taken into the fold by older men who gave them, a mere kid and so ‘a nobody for them, love, time and lessons’ on drug preparation.  ‘Mental capacity’ is often cited by police, i.e. ‘he knows what he is doing’, more so if a child is bright and articulates himself well. However, adults who join cults are viewed as indoctrinated so why not these children? No child from a law-abiding, good background makes an independent choice to become a drug-dealer surely?

Anti-police role models

Their lack of engagement and refusal to accept any forms of support, particularly statutory-led, is interpreted as a choice made towards a criminal lifestyle. This non-engagement and resistance to change ways are instilled behaviours that are a County Lines grooming hall-mark. The tactic allows the groomers to maintain control and influence - they quickly become the children’s anti-police and anti-authority role models triggering characteristic hatred for the ‘Feds’. They mimic what has been scripted for them, with aspirations only to become their negative role models, refusing consent to any intervention that seeks to create distance between themselves and their external fake family. Given the impersonated negative performance put on for police, including offensive language and disgraceful behaviours, it is perhaps unsurprising that the classic, vulnerable victim status is invisible to officers.

However, those willing to peel back this unnatural veneer of ‘gangsta’ bravado and criminality will locate the reality. The signs of exploitation, a compelling traumatic back story, the discrepancies and inconsistencies, the paradox of a toothbrush in a pocket to maintain regular oral hygiene even in the midst of the most unhygienic settings. The vulnerability, the fear and the elements which create the two states are clear to see: gangster and child, offender and victim. The question is, why isn’t this happening? Because for too many in policing, these kids are viewed through a lens of being nothing but a nuisance and their missing episodes a drain on police resources. Until law enforcement mindsets and cultures catch up, nothing will change for these children. That parents’ concerns are dismissed in favour of the child’s, the voice of the groomer, further plays into their perpetrators’ hands as parents find themselves positioned as the problem, described as ‘too strict, controlling or overbearing’ hence child rebelling’, often said within earshot of the child, creating untold difficulty and strained relationships the minute the officer leaves the scene, triggering the child to reiterate to their parent that they are the clear problem and even police have this view.

So, what should police do differently in CCE missing cases? Many things but the following are key.

  • Provide families with a reference number to quote when reporting repeat-missing, this would link to background history and trigger plan and obviate the need to answer some 40 questions.
  • Designate a SPOC on Response who has the best rapport with the exploited child and family, and content to be allocated the ‘misper’ if on duty. 
  • Avoid making judgements based on the child’s surface presentation. Look for the things that aren’t on show.
  • Given engagement challenges arising from grooming, for the best chance of securing valuable information, consider welfare checks/return home interviews ideally by non-police (e.g. charities), failing that, non-uniformed officers or lastly trained uniformed officers.
  • Risk-assess the impact of missing appeals; they can trigger an inadvertent safeguarding issue. Ensure parents have consented as they can have insight of potential risks unknown by police. Remove all appeals as soon as the child is located to avoid serious safeguarding as well as privacy implications.
  • Pursue CCTV and taxi-firm enquiries to secure booking and payment information, routes, and addresses. To not do so is to miss opportunities for crucial intelligence about those further up the chain.
  • Speak to friends or pupils individually not in a group for the best chance of securing disclosures.

I’ll leave readers with this scenario. Imagine you raised a decent son with good manners and values, recognition of right and wrong and respect for the law. To your horror you discover he has swapped all those characteristics for negative ones that go against everything your family stand for, but more worryingly he is an exploited trafficked runner for a line. His life hangs by a thread each time he steps out. Now ask yourself if you’d be perfectly content with the current police response and culture as it is including: the hours where nobody is allocated to his missing because it’s not viewed seriously and the delay is deliberate in the hope that he will return before an officer has to be dispatched; the view that ‘he went off the rails and is no more than a time-wasting drug-dealer who needs locking up not safeguarding’; the attending officer telling you it’s just teen behaviours and perhaps you’re too strict and should compromise a later return home; being mocked as groomed despite being a confirmed trafficked victim; or ‘once 18, the kid gloves will be off and he’ll be getting a different response’.

If you don’t feel there is justification to review the current policing response to what is increasingly a genuine trafficked victim, your son or mine, then the outlook for these children is beyond bleak. A time of fractured family units; decreasing GCSE exam entries nationally; increasing YOIs and prisons to accommodate custodial sentences from offences committed whilst exploited and under compulsion, coercion or grooming; rehabilitation and criminal records that make no dent on re-offending rates but curb every chance of moving on to legitimate employment, a prospect already crippled by the disruption to education by being trafficked; and rocketing mental-health, addiction and homelessness beyond any measure of control or success.

That’s if the victim is still with us. Your son or mine.

This article is authored by the founder of SPACE – an organisation set up to respond to County Lines criminal exploitation of children. The author is ex-law enforcement

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USER67 - Wed, 15 July 2020

Best way I've found to tackle this is to not spend time taking endless misper details but to do unannounced visits to known cuckoo nests in my area. Always finding mispers from other counties and finding lots of goodies to lock people up for. Easy effective safeguarding and much more satisfying I have to say.