Barely a day goes past at the moment without a news piece appearing or a report emerging about County Lines.
With as many as 10,000 vulnerable young people estimated to be caught up in the practice, it is hardly surprising the issue is so high up the agenda for the public, the police and councils.
County Lines – the practice of drug gangs emerging from the cities and branching their operations out into smaller towns around the country – has the exploitation of vulnerable children at its core.
And the devastating impact this is having on the children involved and the communities affected is a rapidly growing problem for society.
The impression many have is that agencies, including councils and the police, are struggling to keep up with the challenge as the practice continuously morphs to out-fox the authorities.
With the Children’s Society estimating as many as 46,000 children in England are involved in gang activity and that 4,000 teenagers in London alone are currently being exploited through criminal exploitation such as County Lines, finger-pointing is beginning to sharpen. And councils are feeling the prick.
A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults slammed councils for exacerbating the problem by placing young people with care needs in facilities miles away from their homes.
Inevitably, and with some justification, the Local Government Association (LGA) points to the gaping funding gap facing councils as mitigation for the difficulty the sector is experiencing.
While lack of adequate facilities in a local area and the need sometimes to move young people out of an area for their own safety can be offered as mitigation, there is also criticism of councils for a patchy response to the issue.
The Children’s Society’s Counting Lives report criticised local authorities for the quality of their data collection, as well as the sector’s inconsistent record for developing strategies to tackle County Lines.
Lucy Dacey, the society’s national programme manager – disrupting exploitation, says: ‘More should be done to share best practice.
‘Where a local area has a good information-sharing agreement it should be shared so others don’t have to invent their own.’
One example of success is Southend BC, where extensive effort has been put into breaking down the barriers between local agencies.
Simon Ford, Southend’s head of community safety and also programme director of the Home Office’s Violence and Vulnerability Unit, says: ‘When you go up the chain to central Government departments they are working in their own areas on this issue, often in isolation.’
‘They are not necessarily joining up across the piece – horizontally.
‘Vertically, yes, they may be doing a lot of work but it’s not being joined up across the piece – at the top.
‘It doesn’t help us if we are trying to join up all these different agencies on the ground floor if we are getting direction vertically from the top from five or six different Government departments on the same or similar issue.’
He says pulling together four crucial boards locally – the community safety partnership, the safeguarding children board, the safeguarding adults board and the health and wellbeing board – has been key to breaking down silos.
It has allowed Southend to introduce a new one-page data dashboard, which pulls together all data from all agencies on a monthly basis to give a full picture for the area.
But a more intractable problem may be the flow of information across council borders.
London’s Rescue and Response programme is leading efforts to address this.
Led by Brent, Lewisham, Islington and Tower Hamlets LBCs, it helps co-ordinate support across London for young people up to the age of 25.
Islington LBC’s executive member for children’s and family services, Cllr Kaya Comer Schwartz, says: ‘For us in Islington it has been really useful as it give us data and analysis of the number of children who may be involved.
‘At the moment it’s looking at London and this is a national issue. We know we need to go further in terms of what counties are doing in their areas.’
With County Lines essentially about the flow of gang and drug problems out of cities to surrounding areas, a lack of communication and co-ordination along corresponding lines leaves agencies at a dangerous disadvantage.
There is a growing wish to end a predominantly reactive response to the issue when a proactive offensive to quash its breeding ground would bring lasting results.
But Mr Ford points out that the record for councils sharing information across borders is not always strong.
‘The police are pretty good at cross-border work,’ he says. ‘But when you look at other agencies sharing information, for example councils placing kids out of area, often receiving authorities don’t hear when or where these kids are being placed .
‘It’s a legal duty for local authorities to inform the receiving local authority that they are there and it hasn’t happened.’
And with all agencies trying to stifle the risk of gangs exploiting vulnerable young people for County Lines, gaps such as these are counterproductive to say the least.
However, even if this loophole were closed, councils point out there would remain the issue of dwindling support services to get vulnerable children on the right path. Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children’s and Young People’s Board, says: ‘There has been a systematic reduction in funding for services that wrap around the family, give support and actually reduce the need for children to be taken into care.
‘We’ve got massive pressures coming in, increasing demand and reducing funding.
‘There is a lack of focus on how we can actually get the intervention in to get the best outcomes for young people.’
Mr Ford agrees, adding: ‘There has been a vacuum for a long time and the thing that has stepped into the gap left by those protective services is the gangs.’
Emerging trends also highlight the task facing councils in the war against County Lines.
While continued effort is needed to protect and support children known to care services, Ms Dacey points out that the majority of exploited young people the Children’s Society works with are not in the care system.
‘Most of the young people we are working with are at home with their parents or grandparents,’ she says.
‘There needs to be a huge amount more investment and research into how you support parents in this relationship.
‘I think it’s quite a step change for local government. The nature of risk in teenage adolescents is changing.’
In addition, the dexterity of gangs to adapt to agencies’ responses to their activities makes the monumental task of addressing County Lines even harder.
Ms Dacey explains: ‘Another trend is children going missing in the school day.
‘Perpetrators obviously know some of the triggers that social services will use to intervene and going missing overnight is one of them.
‘They know it will trigger a response so we are seeing more children going missing in the day.’
And the Children’s Society also points out a growing need to tackle school exclusions so children can stay in mainstream education.
‘We see it being such a link to exploitation,’ Ms Dacey says.
With challenges coming from all directions, the issue showing no respect for agency borders and gangs permanently moving the goal posts, County Lines sadly looks set to test councils and their partners for years to come.
Paul Marinko is a freelance journalist
The Home Office’s Violence and Vulnerability Unit is able to offer support and advice to councils tackling County Lines. For more information, contact the unit’s Programme Director Simon Ford at SimonFord@southend.gov.uk.