Emily Aklan, Founder and Chief Executive of Serenity Welfare, discusses the exploitation of children, grooming by county lines gangs and the importance of treating children in these circumstances as victims.

County lines gangs are an epidemic in Great Britain. Targeted, strategic, relentless – not only are trafficking drugs, pumping them from the inner cities to rural areas, and hubs of violence, but they are recruiting and trapping children as young as eight years old.

Vulnerable children – children in care, children facing domestic abuse, neglected children – are prime target for these vicious gangs. Gangs will prey on the fact that these children – some as young as eight years old – are more likely to be spending large periods of time away from a school or group home environment, will have an increased need for a sense of belonging and a heightened desire for financial and materials goods to fit in with their peers.

They use the same tried-and-tested strategies time and time again: reaching children digitally and tempting them into the gang with promises of lavish gifts, respect and purpose, and then deceiving them so that they cannot leave. When in, they slowly ensure that these children feel that they cannot turn to any traditional support networks and are trapped.

How do we tackle this issue?

One of the most important factors we must address is how we view these exploited children – they are not, and can never be, criminals. They are victims. This is vital in how we can support children and prevent them from becoming involved in gangs in the first place – they need to know that they are not to blame, and that there is another life for them outside of a gang.

Investment in, and the recognition of the transformative powers of, mentoring as a prevention measure is the next step. It is ten times harder to help an exploited child from a county lines gang once they have already been initiated, than if we can recognise the signs and step in to help steer a vulnerable child away from that path in the first place.

Should vulnerable children in care have regular and easy access to specialised, intervention-driven mentoring – from boxing to dramatherapy to music programmes – not only would they discover a new passion in their lives to direct their energy and attention to (reducing their desire to join a gang) – but they would also have access to trained gang exploitation experts who would be looking out for the tell-tale signs and act as a safe and neutral confidante.

Taking a wider view, this concept of treating children as children, not criminals, is key not only when working with children who have been exploited by gangs, but to any child in the care system. A disturbing number of children in care are placed in handcuffs during secure transportation (such as to court mandated appearances, to schools or between care homes), they are treated like criminals.

When we handcuff children, we are setting a dangerous precedent. If we are to show children that being exploited by a gang does not make them a criminal, we cannot treat them as criminals when in our care and protection – which is why we are launching our ‘Hope Instead of Handcuffs’ campaign this year where we will be working to legislate the ban of handcuff use on children in secure transport; and we would be delighted if you would support us by signing up to keep updated when the campaign launches.

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Emily Aklan, Founder and Chief Executive of Serenity Welfare, discusses the exploitation of children and grooming by county lines gangs.

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