GIRLS AND YOUNG WOMEN are being deliberately and increasingly recruited into drug-dealing ‘county lines’ gangs in England, and subjected to horrific acts of sexual violence, the Local Government Association warns.

The menace of county lines has been fuelled by the pandemic, with ruthless gangs targeting young and often vulnerable people to carry and sell drugs from borough to borough and across county boundaries, to reduce their risk of detection. During Covid-19, criminal gangs have even dressed children as keyworkers to deliver drugs.

National Crime Agency figures show that at least 14.5 per cent of referrals were flagged as county lines last year, compared to around 11 per cent in 2019. A London-based project which rescues and supports victims of county lines has reported a 35 per cent increase in referrals during the pandemic.

Although those involved in county lines are predominantly male, the involvement of girls and young women is said to be underestimated and growing. This is because females are considered to arouse less suspicion than males and may be increasingly asked to carry drugs and weapons as they are less likely to be discovered by public services.

However, the consequences of joining a county lines gang can be horrific and life-threatening. The gangs use violence, intimidation, sexual exploitation and the offer of money or drugs to make people to stay in the group. Young women have been raped, passed around dealers as ‘gift girls’ in reward for making profits, and even shot at.

At least 27,000 children in England have been identified as a member of a county lines gang and the risk of young adults being exploited has increased after losing their jobs or being furloughed during Covid-19. Children aged 15 to 17 are those most commonly identified as victims of county lines exploitation, but children as young as seven have been known to be recruited by gangs making as much as £800,000 a year in illegal profits.

Gangs have increased their recruitment activity during the pandemic and related lockdowns by targeting young people ‘hanging around’ on local streets. Although not everyone forced into taking part in county lines is vulnerable, gangs often deliberately target care homes, foster care and supported housing.

An increase in drug dealing is usually linked to an increase in serious violence – gun crime, knife crime, theft and robbery, and homicides. The LGA says that in order to tackle county lines activity, there is a need to focus on multi-agency working to address the root causes of serious violence and to put greater emphasis and investment into early intervention and prevention.

The LGA is calling for Violence Reduction Units – currently in 18 police force areas – to be extended to all police forces in England and Wales and for them to have five years long-term funding, rather than year-on-year commitments. It also wants to work with government to invest fully in children and youth services, which it says is key to tackling serious violence.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The harrowing exploitation of children and young people by county lines drugs gangs, including the increasing trend to recruit females, is a significant and increasing concern for councils who are working hard to identity and protect those at risk of abuse.

“However, to robustly tackle serious violence requires multi-agency working across a range of partners, including health, education, local councils, the police and the voluntary sector.

“Many of the current Violence Reduction Units set up are making inroads on identifying and tackling county lines – but this needs to be on a national basis if it’s going to have a real impact.

“Councils’ youth offending teams have an exceptional record of reducing youth crime and making a real difference to young people’s lives, but they are under huge pressure after seeing their government funding halved over the last decade.

“We want to work with government to help it understand these pressures and how it can provide appropriate funding for children and youth services to prevent children from being exploited and ensure the right support is available for all young people, whatever their needs.”

Abi Billinghurst, Founder and Chief Executive of Abianda, a London-based not-for profit organisation which supports young women and girls affected by gangs and county lines, said: “There are a vast number of young women who go unrecognised, under the radar. They’ve always been involved; it’s just nobody’s ever looked under the stone to find out.”

Rescue and Response County Lines Project

Rescue and Response is a pan-London service that supports London young people aged up to 25 who are involved in or affected by county lines activity. The service is delivered in partnership by Abianda, St Giles Trust, Safer London Foundation and London Borough of Brent. It is funded by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC).

The service has reported a 35 per cent increase in referrals to its Rescue and Response Project during Covid-19. A total of 553 referrals were received from May 2019 to April 2020, of which nearly a third (31 per cent) were looked after children, up from 20 per cent the previous year. Nearly half (43 per cent) of school aged young people were not in education at the time of referral. Local councils are the main referrer (41 per cent of all referrals).

To date, the project has ‘rescued’ 44 young people and recorded a ‘positive outcomes’ rate of 69 per cent and a 60 per cent reduction in county lines involvement for all referrals which it has accepted and with which it has engaged.

* Source: Local Government Association