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National Referral Mechanism 'failing to identify' CCE in County Lines

Officers making County Lines arrests are relying on "gut instincts" for CCE referrals says new research

Police officers making arrests during County Lines operations are forced to rely on “gut reactions and instinct” in deciding whether a young person is a victim, a willing participant or a groomer, according to a new study.

The report by Crest Advisory says that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is failing to identify Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE). It also recommends that under 18-year-olds arrested for a drugs offence linked to county lines should be considered a high-risk safeguarding priority, requiring an urgent, crisis response meaning they should be returned to their home area for intensive support to minimise the risk of re-exploitation.

The research funded by the Hadley Trust used police records, local intelligence, information from support agencies and interviews with staff to analyse the cases of 13 boys suspected of involvement in county lines gangs in England.

For most of the people identified in the 13 case studies they were initially arrested for possession with intent to supply (PWITS) Class A drugs. Across the sample, these ‘PWITS’ arrests were variously the result of a specific police operation or a local task force targeting county lines gangs, police officers finding the child or young person at a ‘cuckooed’ address taken over for the purposes of drug dealing (known as a ‘Trap House’ or ‘Bando’) during a routine visit or the culmination of a missing persons enquiry. For three of the cases the incident was not a specific arrest, but police responding to a disclosure of, or intelligence on, suspected involvement in county lines.

The report finds a number of common features in the boys' lives - such as drug misuse, domestic abuse and periods where they went missing - as well as missed opportunities to prevent them from being drawn into gangs.

It also calls for an end to the practice of ‘exile’ - where children are placed in care a long way from where they live.

Its key recommendations are:

The report notes that expertise and knowledge is contained within specialist teams dealing with children who are potential victims of CCE but these capabilities need to become more embedded across public services.

“Our 13 case studies demonstrate that there is typically an absence of clear evidence or disclosures from young people,” it says. “Police officers making the arrest (or arrests) in county lines are often forced to rely on gut-reaction, value judgements or instinct based on contextual factors such as the ages of young people, their attitudes and demeanour.”

It says the NRM which is effectively the diagnostic system for supporting modern slavery victims and those at risk of exploitation, is “failing children and young people” because it places them in limbo at their time of greatest vulnerability due to “unacceptable drift and delay, and decisions which are not based on the best possible information.”

It says the localisation pilot run by the Home Office provides a model for new CCE panels, in which senior representatives of relevant agencies from specialist teams jointly protect victims.

When children and young people are recognised as potential victims of CCE, the response from their home areas is generally of poor quality leaving victims vulnerable to re-exploitation. Some of these children and young people may groom and exploit others. Young people in this position are often referred to as ‘alpha victims’ by police officers.

The lack of clear, consistent guidance on how first responders should identify whether or not a young person is a victim of CCE is described as “a significant cause of the ongoing harms and re-exploitation they experience. The lack of robust, effective packages of protection, safeguarding and support for potential victims of CCE in their home areas is also the cause of the harm they suffer”.

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