Exploited children being forced to dress as delivery drivers to disguise criminal activities

Vulnerable children who were exploited by criminal gangs during the pandemic were forced to dress up as delivery drivers to disguise their illegal activities, according to a leading children’s charity.

Research conducted by Barnardo’s found during lockdown many organised criminal gangs moved their activities into busier public places like supermarket car parks to avoid arousing suspicion.

The charity said criminals had entrapped children, some as young as nine, with promises of “easy money,” taking advantage of the financial desperation of families.

According to Barnardo’s, in 2020 the number of children assessed by children’s social care of being at risk from gang involvement increased from 10,960 to 14,700.

Youth workers say some young people, coerced into carrying drugs, were forced to wear delivery driver uniforms or high-vis jackets to disguise the crimes as legitimate activities.

The charity says the number of those involved in trafficking also rose from 2,490 to 3,010, and children involved in drug misuse increased from 23,710 to 29,170.

Barnardo’s says police forces and other agencies often lack the training and skills to effectively protect such vulnerable children, and has called on the Government to make changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

It says the Bill should be amended to include a legal definition of child criminal exploitation (CCE), bringing the approach to such crimes in line with the approach to child sexual exploitation.

The charity says strategies should be developed in every local area to specifically tackle CCE and serious youth violence.

Stella Creasy MP said: “Child criminal exploitation thrives off of the ignorance and confusion of police forces and other agencies.

“Without a clear definition of child criminal exploitation, and leadership from Government, frontline workers are being left without the tools they need to protect children and young people from criminal activity.”

Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said: “We found in our Counting Lives report that risks of child criminal exploitation are not being identified early by professionals and even when they are spotted later many children are criminalised rather than being offered support as victims.

“This important research from Barnardo’s shows that, sadly, this is still happening.

“We urge the Government to act now to ensure that there is no postcode lottery in protecting children who are ruthlessly exploited by criminal groups.”

Barnardo’s is also calling on the Government to increase specific funding for youth services, as part of a wider package of early intervention support in every community.

The charity’s interim co-chief executive Michelle Lee-Izu said: “Barnardo’s has long warned about the growing threat of child criminal exploitation, so it is alarming that agencies are still too often failing to identify victims, even when there are clear signs of harm.

“Our services are supporting children as young as nine who are being criminally exploited, and we’re deeply concerned that without Government action the problem will spiral even further out of control.

“These children are victims and need the right support to help them recover, rather than being criminalised.

“Yet evidence from our frontline workers shows children and families can experience months of exploitation, fear and violence before help arrives.”

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