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    UK's 'County Lines' Drug Cartels Now Employing Children as Young as Seven

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    Recruited children routinely suffer violence and threats of harm to themselves or loved ones, and sexual exploitation to ensure compliance, and criminals change tactics as authorities become aware of their operations, such as introducing “shift work” for those under their control so they're missing for less time and less likely to arouse suspicion.

    British children as young as seven are being targeted for grooming, violence and exploitation by drug gangs enslaving them into criminality, a report from the Children’s Society has warned.

    The charity says criminals typically exploit children aged 14 - 17, but the age at which youngsters are being targeted for recruitment is getting ever-younger. The development is just the latest in the 'county lines' saga, which has seen drug gangs increasingly use younger people to break into new geographical markets.

    The report is based on the charity’s own case studies, and freedom of information requests submitted to police and local councils, which reveal inadequate information about the scale of the exploitation of children as well as highly divergent levels of awareness and resources in different areas.

    Web of Exploitation

    The number of children affected is believed to run into the tens of thousands, with survey indicating 40 percent of police officers believe child exploitation has been taking place in their area for five years.

    A Manchester deputy headteacher cited in the report said teenagers were helping groom primary school children, with 10-year-olds picked up after school by 14-year-olds who in turn were involved with older teenagers, amounting to a "web of exploitation". Often, targets become enmeshed via "bondage", having debts imposed upon them which they must repay. For instance, a target will be given something of value to carry or hold for a fee, then they will be 'robbed' by other operatives working for the gang, placing them in 'debt' to their groomers.

    Typically, children are brought into gangs by first being given smaller tasks, such as stealing from shops, before gradually being given ever greater criminal responsibilities. They are often told not to trust professionals, told not to talk to anyone, and silenced through threats of violence, death, sexual violence. In some cases, they’re forced to commit sexual acts.

    “We heard reports of children acting out in school so that they were excluded to be able to attend a shift – the fear of repercussion for not complying with their exploiter greater than that within school. We had a case where the young female would go to school not in the correct uniform – so school would send her home without informing the parents and then her exploitation would take place from going home from school to home,” the report states.

    ​The report states Snapchat and/or geo-tracking apps are used to monitor children, and the constantly evolving nature of technology makes identifying at-risk youths harder all the time.

    “You work behind the tide every single day. As soon as you think you’ve understood something…it’s changed. And because of the level of violence perpetrated towards our children, the fear and the threat they live with makes it almost impossible for them to accept [support],” a youth worker is quoted as saying in the report.

    The charity is calling for changes in legislation, believing the law should be clarified to ensure all children who are groomed, coerced and controlled into committing crime are recognised as victims of exploitation. It also calls for the government to consult on a new criminal offence to "outlaw the practice of making a child insert and carry drugs within their bodies".

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