Children make up around 25% of those caught up in 'county lines' across the country and are often those more likely to be at greater risk of exploitation and arrest as orchestrators distance themselves from front line activities.
Their involvement in the ‘running’ of drugs between locations, typically using public transport, means they frequently come into contact with police.
While police follow criminal processes as appropriate, this presents a unique opportunity to positively engage with those apprehended, potentially leading to an increase in safeguarding outcomes and opportunities to pursue those who look to exploit others.
The Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU), together with the National County Lines Coordination Centre and the Youth Justice Board County Lines Pathfinder, have introduced ‘Custody Comfort Boxes’ – containing art activities, items specifically linked to support children with special education needs and other items aimed at reducing stress levels or that improve mental wellbeing.
The aim of the pilot is to limit the negative experience for children who’ve been arrested with the aim of improving their engagement and cooperation.
The boxes have been distributed to custody suites across Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, after an initial pilot in London last year.
Initial feedback to the scheme has been positive with noticeable differences in cooperation and communication with some of the most vulnerable detainees, and processes are already being reviewed to utilise the boxes for victims and witnesses who attend the stations.
In Peterborough, since the start of this year, five teenagers under the age of 16 have been arrested on suspicion of being involved in drug activity (this includes four arrests for possession with intent to supply class B drugs, and one arrest for possessing a class B/C drug), although Cambridgeshire Constabulary clarified that these arrests do not definitively confirm the teenagers were being exploited.
A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire Police said: "Child exploitation is when an abuser takes advantage of a young person for their own personal gain. This can take many forms, including sexual exploitation or forcing the child to commit crime, such as drug dealing.
"Exploitation can happen to any child, at anytime, anywhere. Knowing the signs to look out for and reporting any concerns could change a life. You don't need to be sure. More information can be found on the force’s dedicated web page.”
Holly Finlayson, county lines pathfinder programme manager, said: “It is often the case that a child who has been arrested may well go on to become a victim within the same investigation. Unfortunately, the experience that they currently have in custody leads to a negative reaction and often an unsupported prosecution against those who have exploited them.
“To stop the cycle of re-offending and to target the people running these organisations, it’s important that we provide support and guidance for those being targeted, and this project is part of a number of initiatives we are running across the region to help with this.
Detective Inspector Kelly Gray, ERSOU’s county lines coordinator, said: “Although it can be easy to criminalise the children involved in county lines, it’s often the case that they themselves are vulnerable and are being exploited, and contact with police presents a unique opportunity to engage with them positively and provide help.
“We often find that detainees don’t want to support prosecution against those exploiting them and many continue to re-offend subsequently. It’s vital we do all that we can to halt this cycle. By treating them as what they are – vulnerable children – we want to build a more positive environment for them and to demonstrate that we are here to help. It may seem like a straightforward idea, but the potential benefits are huge.”