Few will have missed the increase in missing appeals for children.
Endless faces as we scroll through Social Media. Some names popping up with alarming regularity, their appeals resembling a child’s photo-album charting their teens - except with each missing appeal, the images raise increasing wellbeing concerns and diminishing connection to the original image.
When we helpfully share appeals in the hope of a good outcome, how much do we know of the scourge which has taken, with scary ease, a firm grip of the nation’s children, insidiously and quietly extracting them from their homes and families?
County Lines, CCE and Modern Slavery
The blight that is County Lines - linked to children going missing (though not all are reported), and propped up by Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) - a form of Modern Slavery which has rocketed exponentially within the last decade to become the most common child exploitation category, affecting mostly British children from every colour and class - from protective and negligent parents and family-homes and care-homes. We ponder over the images of missing children and imagine their lives, even toy with the popular idea that they must have a void somewhere, perhaps in the shape of poor parenting, boundaries or attention. The reality is children from across the spectrum of extremes are groomed to go missing because any child from any upbringing and home is susceptible to CCE.
County Lines is a criminal business model operated by drug gangs and organised crime groups using a dedicated phone line for illicit drug supply, but fronted by children and vulnerable adults systematically targeted, recruited, exploited and trafficked across Police and local authority boundaries, but locally too. Common themes within County Lines are coercion, threats, sexual violence and exploitation, money-laundering, kidnap, weapon carriage and storage including firearms, debt bondage and serious violence.
Under Modern Slavery laws, any child utilised internationally, nationally, locally or within one property for the purpose of exploitation is considered to be a trafficked victim and not deemed able to give informed consent to their own exploitation, abuse or slavery.
Pied Piper, Puppetry and Remote Controls
No world for children yet County Lines exploitation is thriving through trafficking of groomed children whose minds are effectively severely rewired against good and towards evil - protective family and positive influences swapped for criminality, violence and extremism. We have a national army of brainwashed children, many now adults, who have fallen prey to the County Lines ‘Pied Piper’. Victims vehemently choosing strangers over family as a symptom of the deadly puppetry remotely controlling not only children’s actions and movements but thoughts, decisions and consent. By the time a first missing episode occurs, grooming on a grand scale has largely already succeeded hence the missing itself - children magnetised and mobilised by extra-familial instructions no matter the familial pull. Though many parents note mounting changes in their child’s demeanour and behaviour leading to this point, few imagine the reality, or the enormity and power of the controller of those changes.
As taught by their exploiters in order to avoid detection by Police and theft by rival gangs, trafficked children commonly transport drugs bodily secreted via their private parts. This is no normal rite of passage for children in the way mastering shoe laces or balance on first bikes is, yet this very adult action is rarely responded to as a Child Protection or Safeguarding concern, but more as a criminal tactic or behaviour despite being undertaken by children. Bizarrely it isn’t seen through the lens of potential fatality should the drugs burst internally, or as Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), despite the DfE definition of CSE confirming sexual activity can appear consensual and there can be an absence of physical contact by exploiters.
Social media Police accounts are awash with images of plastic Kinder egg toy containers and often flippant references to ‘Kinder egg surprises’ in arrests relating to children; an inference ever-present that the internal secretion of illegal drugs in (or without) such containers is an independent decision by children and the drug-dealing a lifestyle choice. In years to come, we’ll no doubt look back in shame at the way society thought nothing of this abhorrent practice involving children, indeed joked about it.
Missing episodes are largely dependent on the trafficked distance and business need, whether rotational ‘shifts’ are in place, and the specified payback terms if victims are trapped in debt bondage to their exploiters - a hugely common occurrence ensuring victims can never be exploitation-free as interest is piled on by the minute. A spotlight on CCE Missing within the last decade, assisted by a small number of affected protective-factor families who brought the epidemic to wider public and statutory attention, prompted the County Lines model to adapt, by swapping from distant to local trafficking to avoid undesirable Police attention generated by the increase in children from protective and proactive families who reported their children missing no matter the frequency. This switch triggered absences during the school day rather than missing after school, and children’s home-returns earlier than previously occurring, in the hope that families would view this change as an improvement and less of a concern and consequently refrain from reporting missing.
‘Cuckooing’ and ‘trap house’ have entered common usage thanks to a spotlight, albeit partial, on the harms of County Lines but how often do we see that focus widen to acknowledge the full picture? The fact that vulnerable adults, often with mental health or addiction challenges and whose properties are commandeered as drug-dealing bases by gang elders are not the sole victims?
That the foot-soldiers dishing out the drugs are mostly exploited, missing, trafficked children, enticed miles from their homes and coming head-on with an environment most adults would flinch from: filthy, unhygienic, dangerous, violent, criminal and traumatic.
That children disappear into these dark holes for days, weeks or months with no access to regular meals, washing or sleeping facilities, on call or alert 24/7, feed themselves rubbish from takings only when instructed and sleep in an awake fashion, one eye open whilst tightly clutching their gear and weapon as trust is in short supply in their dog-eat-dog world.
That children both experience and witness violence and sexual abuse, and are exposed to potential infections given the drugs-related setting they are ensconced and embedded into.
That children return home unrecognisable (if fortunate, as many also suffer serious and fatal harm whilst missing) - dishevelled, smelly, gaunt and hungry, traumatised, angry, jumpy, in the same attire they vanished in, hinting horrifying goings-on through bloodstains large and small; rock-hard, foul-smelling socks with holes punched through by growing toenails from footwear never removed, even whilst laying down, in readiness of escape from harm within the property or from Police presence.
That within hours or days of a return home, children will be tasked to hand over takings, take possession of new stock and repeat the missing, relieving another runner currently at their last or different base.
That children will have no way out when or if they realise there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
That Police campaigns rightly encouraging communities to share local information to curb cuckooing and drug-dealing will also highly likely lead to arrests and criminalisation of trafficked children as drug-dealers, rather than seeing them safeguarded and viewed as victims of Modern Slavery, as too many responders fail to assess the true picture behind an offence.
That unavoidable seizures of drugs and takings from an arrested child will place them in dire risk and never-ending debt bondage; that missing appeals can also pose huge risks for certain children and their families, and that allowing a child to make their way home after arrest is not safeguarding but a recipe for disaster.
Victim or offender? Safeguarded, criminalised or dead?
How does County Lines-missing look and feel for the many flung into this nightmare? Families across the UK independently report a bleak and consistent account of their ordeal, commonly expressed as exacerbated by the statutory response.
Lost opportunities and failures to recognise missing as a key indicator of County Lines exploitation, often alongside a presentation of multiple concerns and evidence, suspicions of which should trigger a statutory duty to refer suspected victims into the National Referral Mechanism, to determine whether or not an individual is a victim of Modern Slavery.
An exasperating lack of meaningful action or intervention to reduce missing or address the extra familial harm controlling it. Reactive, tick-box responses rather than contextual safeguarding and proactive handling particularly in repeat-missing where regular or daily trafficking occurs, often within minutes of a return or welfare check by Police.
Frequency of reporting commonly experienced as triggering diminishing professional concerns and support, as if desensitised, and a pervading sense of parent-blaming - that parents are somehow not managing their child appropriately or adequately and the child is continuing to ‘put himself at risk’ or ‘not learning his lesson’.
An unwavering resistance or refusal by statutory responders to venture beyond a rigid perception of a lucrative drug-dealing lifestyle choice, to exploitation, debt bondage and entrapment.
Frustrations that the further away from home a child has travelled, the more indicative of a child’s choice, capacity or agency rather than the will of exploiters.
The appearance of children’s spoken, written and body language as consensual taken as evidence of complicity in criminality and own trafficking, ruling out exploitation.
Expectations that CCE victims must fit the ideal, perfect victim mould, complete with an obligatory identifiable ball and chain signposting to their slavery and an immediate and visible desire by them to tell all and be saved.
Care placements wrongly perceived an only solution, long distances from home, largely harming more than helping and destroying already fractured family relationships and serving as little more than holding-pens and respites for responding authorities.
Diversion for children (which does wonders for non-exploited children) and wholly inappropriate parenting courses frequently the go-to proposals, illustrating the lack of grasp of extra familial exploitation and harm. Desperate parental calls for extrication strategies and pursuit of perpetrators falling on deaf ears. No exploited child has the luxury of choice to embrace a gifted gym pass or new hobby whilst their entire focus remains on keeping themselves or threatened family alive. Nor can any parent be trained or equipped to fight off harm beyond their front door when law enforcement can’t, nor should they be left or expected to.
Parents permanently grappling with rock and a hard place scenarios and Hobson’s choice – forced to pick the option triggering the least catastrophic damage to their child or family.
An all-consuming, permanent fear that a County Lines missing episode, whilst a clear Child Protection and Safeguarding concern, is also gateway to your child’s criminalisation or death. Will the child return home alive? If so, as victim or offender?
Difficult, not impossible
Missing is often the entry point for statutory services and offers a key pivotal point in exploited children’s journeys. However the window of opportunity to intervene and alter their otherwise inevitable trajectories also starts quickly slamming shut from this point as their rewiring process comes good like a carefully wound-up performing toy: an unshakeable loyalty towards exploiters who instil hatred of Police and social workers, which children readily and perfectly mimic, and showcasing of coached responses with word-perfect delivery. Many parents will have witnessed these ‘rehearsals’ in the home, alarmed and struggling to explain them, fast forward to Police station performances and parents reeling from the shock their child is recognisable in name only. Missing incidents must therefore be grasped as a golden moment, with a clear goal of urgent extrication from CCE to avert extreme emotional harm and trauma, as well as radicalisation into extremism, serious violence and criminality, and fatality. Rewiring produces a steadfast lack of disclosures and engagement, and any attempts to create distance between children and their exploiters robustly resisted. Yet that cannot be reason not to do our utmost and beyond as the vast majority of children are the voice of their groomers and don’t recognise they are exploited, crossed over to a deadly side that has none of their interests at heart.
It would be a fallacy to say there are happy endings. There are no magic wands and road blocks aplenty hence our call for better prevention and early interventions. However, there are many small, quick wins and hope for longer-term gains if we are prepared to believe ‘difficult and untested’ does not mean impossible. Interventions with the highest chance of success no matter how short-lived need to be made available at the earliest opportunity to disconnect the exploiters’ magnetism, not as a last solution. Time is of the essence because once recruited, children rapidly sink into the quicksand of CCE.
To coincide with International Missing Children Day on May 25, a call to better identify exploited children and keep them safe from serious, criminal, violent and traumatic harm, and criminalisation for offences stemming from their exploitation and trafficking.
Please support us and others in seeking a national CCE strategy which must include shifting to safeguarders the current onus on children to self-declare CCE and identify themselves as victims.
The threat of CCE from County Lines affects us all because no child is immune. Mine, yours, those whose appeals we share and those who tragically never made it to adulthood due to County Lines exploitation.
Portions of this blog published by Police Oracle and Catch 22 with permission.