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Early intervention in the county lines battle

Monday 30 March 2020 Data Insight & AnalyticsYouth Justice

By Miles Reucroft

The issue of eliminating county lines drug operations has been perplexing police and local authority service partnerships for years now, as the criminal gangs responsible for them have evolved their enterprises to avoid detection by law enforcement. This shift in drug dealing methodology has seen criminals coercing younger and younger perpetrators to operate at the sharp end of the trade, trafficking and selling drugs up and down the country on their behalf.

The subject was covered in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, Britain’s Child Drug Runners. The programme investigates the devastating impact county lines has on the young people involved and their families. If it’s a subject that interests and concerns you, the programme is well worth a watch.

In the programme, it says that 14-17-year olds are the most vulnerable to exploitation and that the Children’s Commissioner estimates that some 50,000 children are being exploited in county lines activities and this has been evidenced from data captured in local youth offending systems such as ChildView. Perhaps not on an entirely unrelated topic, it is also noted by the National Children’s Bureau that 49,187 children were missing education in 2016/17. 

So, how can we, as a society and through our services, tackle this issue which is occurring in every town across the country? The documentary draws a familiar conclusion: early intervention.

Early intervention, largely agreed on as the panacea for county lines, is easier said than achieved. How can schools, local authorities, youth services, youth justice teams and the police align and move to recover the lives and futures of these exploited children?

Awareness will play a major role in the battle against county lines. As noted in Channel 4’s documentary by the pressured Thames Valley police, county lines are happening right under the noses of the rest of the population, down back alleys and in the homes of vulnerable drug addicts. Documentaries such as this are vital to helping people understand what is actually going on – and it’s going on everywhere.

Fortunately, experienced leaders governing multi-agency services such as Multi Agency Safeguarding Hubs (MASH) and Youth Offending Services, have shown how to build and sustain effective responses, particularly where statutory partnerships align around child-first policy, insights and information from practice systems and outcomes.

Children are falling into county lines operations as a result of being seduced by a lifestyle consisting of money, clothes, cars and respect. It offers them an identity they are otherwise struggling to find and the promise of easy money. If something looks too good to be true, however, it probably is.

Impressionable and vulnerable children, often although not exclusively from deprived backgrounds, see drug dealing as the way to make something of their lives. They get drawn in, coerced into running drug lines on behalf of their new friends and set across the country to pedal their wares out of trap houses, often living in squalor and fear of getting robbed. A glamorous and lucrative lifestyle this is not – and getting out can be all but impossible.

So, we’re back at early intervention. As one mother of a boy who was exploited says during the documentary, at first she viewed her son as a victim, then latterly as a perpetrator. The point at which these children can be helped is in those early stages. Of course, they remain as victims throughout, but getting to them before they believe they can’t back away and start recruiting other youngsters into the process is vital in turning the tide in the battle against county lines. 

This is where data mapping and deeper enquiry can play such an important role. Schools, police and local children’s authorities all have observations and data on these children which can be brought into sharper focus and visualised. As we see in the documentary when one girl is arrested, the police have information on her which informs their strategy to best deal with her immediate situation. She’s known to them. The problem is, she’s already submerged in the world of drug dealing, so it’s impossible for the police and children’s services to effectively deal with her situation given the small window of time and priority that they have. 

We can, however, build and use the links and insights better. Is school progress and attendance illustrating a pattern? Who knows about the young person’s peer group and family? Have the police or others been reacting to incidents? All these factors and our understanding of adolescent vulnerability can be linked and made transparent to be used for honing early intervention efforts. We can start to join the engagement dots. We can use practice-based evidence to identify the journey that exploited young people have been on to find and make sense of commonality, missed opportunities and protective factors. We can look beneath the surface.

Technology alone isn’t the silver bullet to this growing crisis. It will take insight, innovative and exceptional human effort to recover the lives concerned. Combining rich data and understanding to inform service leaders where to focus efforts across a complex system of influences will drive learning and efficiency in early intervention and optimise the limited multi agency resources available. Otherwise, as we have seen, by the time we react to escalating incidents, it can already be too late.

For more information on how our experience with technology and design can help to improve the lives of vulnerable young people, please click below.

The issue of eliminating county lines drug operations has been perplexing police and local authority service partnerships for years now, as the criminal gangs responsible for them have evolved their enterprises to avoid detection by law enforcement. This shift in drug dealing methodology has seen criminals coercing younger and younger perpetrators to operate at the sharp end of the trade, trafficking and selling drugs up and down the country on their behalf.

Early intervention in the county lines battle