Disrupting Exploitation service to help families at risk

Charity offers new support to parents of county lines victims.

A charity leading the way in supporting children subjected to horrific county lines exploitation is offering new help to the parents and carers of victims in Birmingham.

The Children’s Society’s national Disrupting Exploitation service, which runs in Birmingham, London and Greater Manchester, is employing new parent workers to support parents and carers whose children are being exploited or thought to be at risk of criminal exploitation. The service is part-funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK, as well as by a grant from a generous philanthropist.

The Children’s Society says that with better education and support, parents and carers can be vital allies in helping children exit situations in which they are criminally exploited, including through county lines.

But a survey conducted on behalf of the charity with 2,000 parents of 10-16-year-olds across the UK found 42% of parents did not understand the term ‘county lines’ which is used to describe the practice of children being groomed and coerced to distribute drugs across the country. It also found 56 per cent of parents did not worry about their children falling victim to criminal exploitation – despite research showing that any child in any community can be targeted.

Latest figures for referrals of children to social care in the West Midlands indicate a rise in cases which may indicate children are being criminally exploited. The number in which ‘gangs’ were identified as a factor at the end of assessments more than doubled from 800 in 2017/18 to 1,650 in 2019/20. There was also an increase in trafficking being identified as a factor, from 360 to 460, and a rise in cases in which children going missing was flagged, from 1,730 to 1,990.

The Children’s Society’s practitioners say changes in young people’s behaviour as a result of them being exploited take a huge toll on parents and carers, making it harder for them to support their children alongside any vital help being offered by professionals. They say complex statutory processes like the National Referral Mechanism system used to identify trafficking and modern slavery victims and child protection procedures were difficult for parents and carers to navigate alone.

The new parent workers will help parents and carers to understand exploitation, including county lines, spot the warning signs, and improve communication with their children. Sessions can take place in person, online or by phone depending on the wishes of the parent or carer and Covid restrictions. There will also be peer support groups.

Becky Fedia, National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation Programme, said: “Support from a parent or carer can be an important step in a child safely exiting an exploitative situation through which they have been groomed then left terrified and traumatised by threats, violence and abuse.

“Changes in children’s behaviour like going missing, using drugs or becoming angry and secretive can put a huge strain on family relationships. Finding out that exploitation is to blame for this will seem daunting and scary for parents, causing worry, stress and feelings of helplessness.

“We know that parents and carers can be crucial allies both in helping children and in providing insight and information that can help disrupt perpetrators of exploitation. But, too often, they do not get support and are overlooked by statutory agencies.

“This new help will not only benefit parents and carers, but also their children and any siblings who may also be vulnerable to exploitation.

“During this further lockdown, this will be particularly important, because criminals adapted their tactics to continue grooming young people and exploit their vulnerabilities, including online, in response to the first lockdown.

“Parents can play a vital role in spotting the warning signs at a time when children may be spending more time at home, hidden from the view of professionals and other people who might ordinarily be able to raise concerns.”

‘Jenny’ was supported by The Children’s Society when her fifteen-year-old son Robbie was groomed and exploited by organised criminals, initially to shoplift, but later to carry drugs amid threats to his life. He was arrested and faced trial for supplying Class A drugs.

Jenny was offered help to understand what was happening, rebuild her relationship with her son and improve her own mental health. Robbie was eventually recognised as a victim of exploitation and cleared of all charges. He has since passed his GCSEs and found a job.

Jenny said: “I was at my wits’ end and I needed some help. Before this happened, I knew absolutely nothing about criminal exploitation. Now I know there were signs I missed, such as when I found alcohol, a weed crusher and Rizla paper in his room.

“It was really refreshing to just have someone to talk to and not judge me. Without the support, I was in such an awful place I did think about suicide.

“There were a few times where it felt like I wanted to give up and stop fighting for him. The help that I received was almost life-changing.

“Although we have gone through this heart-destroying, rollercoaster of a journey that has shattered not just Robbie’s and my life, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Elly De Decker, England Director, The National Lottery Community Fund, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players, organisations like The Children’s Society can continue to create change across the country, helping to tackle important issues like child exploitation and abuse. The organisation works tirelessly to improve the lives of young people, and we’re delighted to support their ongoing work.”

Pics – Chris O’Donovan