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30 Mar 2020

More focus needed to protect children in residential care from ‘county lines’ criminal exploitation

Children living in children’s homes are being criminally exploited and abused because of failings in oversight by children’s social care and central government, the Howard League for Penal Reform reveals today (Monday 30 March).

In the latest briefing from its programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care, the Howard League explores how boys and girls are being targeted by gangs and criminal networks, including ‘county lines’.

The briefing, Victims not criminals: protecting children living in residential care from criminal exploitation, warns that more focus is needed to safeguard children, who, at present, are more likely to be criminalised than recognised as victims and helped.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Every child wants and deserves the chance to grow and fulfil their potential. We must do all we can to ensure that they are not held back by a criminal record.

“Since we began our programme four years ago, large strides have been taken to reduce the number of children in residential care being criminalised. But our work has also uncovered systemic failings that lead to children being abused.

“Solving the problem starts with the recognition that boys and girls who are exploited and lured into crime are victims, not suspects. Children’s homes, social workers, police and the government must work together to put the needs of children first.

“Getting this right will not only transform children’s lives; it will reduce crime and make communities safer.”

The new briefing is the sixth to be published as part of the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care. It is based on extensive research with several hundred people with knowledge of the children’s residential care sector and child criminal exploitation.

As well as speaking to children, the Howard League has heard from police, including senior officers at the National County Lines Coordination Centre; the owners of children’s homes and their staff; directors of children’s services; third-sector organisations working with gangs and exploited children, social workers; youth offending teams; lawyers; magistrates; and many others.

The briefing explains how looked-after children are an obvious target for people running county lines, who want to escape detection and find them easier to control and manipulate than adults. In some cases, people involved in crime will hang around children’s homes; in other cases, they will target children in other locations, such as parks, bus stops and near places with free wi-fi.

Robust data on child criminal exploitation is not yet available, largely because professionals have not been identifying and recording it. The Howard League spoke to one local authority that knew there was a problem in its area but had so far only identified three or four looked-after children as being at risk.

The briefing examines the way that residential care is structured, and how that plays into the hands of people who seek to exploit and abuse children. Three-quarters of children’s homes in England are owned by private companies, who ultimately decide where the homes are located.

As companies seek to turn a profit, homes are usually situated in less expensive parts of the country and frequently disadvantaged areas. Pressure on places – caused by the growing numbers of children coming into care and the unequal distribution of homes across the country – has led to a situation where more than 40 per cent of looked-after children are living outside their home area.

Too often children are placed wherever a bed can be found, and sometimes this means being put in environments where they are susceptible to abuse. While moving away from their home area may be the right option for some children, it has become more widely recognised that long distances from home can put exploited children at more risk and enable exploitation to spread, with the development of new ‘lines’.

One children’s homes manager told the Howard League about a girl who had been in 28 placements, making new connections everywhere she went. A senior police officer told the charity about a child he had encountered who had set up a new ‘line’ when in an out-of-area placement.

The briefing states: “Child exploitation and the ‘county lines’ business model has thrived on the boundaries operated by the 40 police forces and 343 local authorities in England. It is vital that agencies find ways to overcome the problems this fragmentation creates and that children receive a consistent response wherever they are in the country.

“It is not acceptable that an exploited child is recognised as a victim and safeguarded in one part of the country whilst in another part they are criminalised. It is also unacceptable that, when the police pick up an exploited child hundreds of miles from home, they can’t get in touch with anyone in their home force or authority who will take responsibility and make sure that child is safely returned home.”

The disproportionate criminalisation of children in residential care was exposed by the Howard League in 2016. A scoping briefing published by the charity highlighted a systemic problem across the country, where staff in some children’s homes would routinely resort to contacting the police, often over minor incidents that would never come to officers’ attention if they happened in family homes.

The Howard League has gone on to publish six more briefings on the issue, promoting best practice in policing and children’s homes and telling the stories of children who were criminalised while living in residential care.

The charity also helped to create a step-by-step guide to help lawyers advocate for looked-after children at the police station.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. Victims not criminals: protecting children living in residential care from criminal exploitation can be downloaded from the Howard League website.
  3. More information about the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care can be found on the charity’s website.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
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