Children as young as six-years-old are being targeted by criminal gangs to deal drugs, a meeting has heard.
A senior Cleveland Police officer told a meeting the problem of “county lines” – where vulnerable youngsters are used by organised criminal networks to do their bidding – had hit the force area.
Detective Chief Inspector Wendy Tinkler offered a stark update on the exploitation of youngsters and how “county lines” was now being tackled.
Ms Tinkler added: “We’ve got an investigation at the moment with a child who is six in Cleveland.
“Why are these organised crime groups targeting young children? The unfortunate thing is it is so easy to find the next child.”
Simply defined, “county lines” is where someone is taken from one area to another for the purpose of committing a crime – which mainly involves illegal drugs.
Children are particularly vulnerable.
Ms Tinkler, speaking at a Safer Stockton Partnership meeting this week told how exploited and manipulated children could be doing things which “appeared consensual”.
“It does not necessarily need to have physical contact – it could be something that can be arranged over the internet or on a phone,” she added.
“Constant use of the internet on phones or laptop can be a sign.
“It can involve things to entice them such as gifts or money but also threats – so you could get a young person forced to commit crime because they’re frightened if they don’t do that, then there’s going to be repercussions against their mum for example.”
Common signs of vulnerable children being exploited include youngsters persistently going missing from school or home and being found out of the area, multiple mobile phones, unexplained injuries and unexplained money or clothes.
A presentation prepared for the meeting revealed white British children were being targeted as they were more likely to evade detection – with those aged between 12 and 16 exploited the most.
Those in care, youngsters excluded from mainstream schools and those with physical and mental learning disabilities were also listed as vulnerable.
Ms Tinkler told the panel children who were committing crime on behalf of others were under threat of violence and being coerced by others.
“More often that not, because of their ages, there is no criminal investigation or progression to court,” she added.
“And the perpetrator moves on to the next child.
“The shameful fact is they are a commodity and disposable – that’s in harsh terms.
“They don’t think about the person, they think about the profit.”
But the Detective chief inspector also said it was important to understand these children were victims and not criminals.
She added: “They’re young children who have been taken advantage of – the problem we have got is some of these children involved are difficult children. They persistently go missing from home and they will probably engage in anti-social behaviour and be highlighted on a regular basis to the police.
“What we’ve got to understand is we can’t get that tunnel vision that these children have made a choice to do what they’re doing.
“It’s important to understand when they’re being exploited, it’s very likely they are being trafficked and they are trafficking victims.”
Alex Metcalfe , Local Democracy Reporting Service