New data highlights link between county lines networks and looked-after children

Report finds looked-after children are disproportionately represented in county lines networks, but they are not being systematically identified by police or local authorities.

A new report from crime and justice specialists Crest finds that a growing number of looked-after children (LAC) are being placed in care settings which do not adequately protect them from criminal exploitation.
Crest says that children being moved into accommodation, often at a great distance from their home area and sometimes in unregulated settings, has ‘amplified’ their vulnerability to criminal exploitation from gangs.

The report claims that the ‘market’ for children’s social care placements is broken, with a shortage of suitable placements close to home for vulnerable adolescents meaning they are often placed hundreds of miles from home, and in extreme circumstances in unregistered, unregulated settings.

Data suggests there is also an ‘acute shortage’ of therapeutic and specialist placements for children known to have been victims of criminal exploitation. Crest says this leaves them at risk of re-exploitation, adding that the forthcoming Care Review “must consider the exploitation of looked after children and support local authorities to create suitable placements for vulnerable adolescents near to their home area.”

The report also recommends the government “urgently implement” the recommendations of their review of the use of unregulated care settings, and go further, requiring that local authorities seek ministerial permission to place a looked-after child in any unregulated accommodation.

The report also warns of a ‘gap between data and operational understanding’, due to police not consistently using county lines and child criminal exploitation (CCE) flags to identify heightened risk in looked-after children. Inconsistent identification and recording of CCE and child sexual exploitation (CSE) provides local police forces and local authorities with a huge barrier to managing risk, especially across borders.

Local authorities and police forces currently lack a common set of vulnerability assessment tools and CCE flags. The report warns that with no centrally directed approach, there is currently an inconsistent patchwork of local responses. Researchers say that having a legal definition for county lines, plus a new legal framework to aid agencies to fight against the issue, will help.

The report also recommends that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is reformed for under 18s with local authorities assuming responsibility as the ‘competent authority’ for referrals, which Crest says will allow them to “take responsibility for trafficking and slavery in their area”.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “The last few months have really brought home the vulnerabilities that thousands of children in England live with, pushing up the political agenda the need for greater support for the most vulnerable kids.

“This report is another timely reminder to those who have the power to act, of the consequences of failing to do so.”

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