Ofsted Chief Inspector Highlights Increase in Criminal Exploitation of Children
Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector addressed the NCAS conference in Manchester about local authority children’s services, criminal exploitation of children and county lines. The chief inspector focused on the risks to children and the findings of the National Crime Agency that almost 90% of police forces they surveyed are dealing with ‘county lines’ activity. And there are estimates of some 1500 ‘county lines’ operating nationally. Concerns raised by the Chief Inspector are outlined in the text of her speech as follows:
‘Despite the ages of some of those involved, make no mistake, this is organised crime. It is perpetrated by dynamic, organised and ruthless gangs. And children from all walks of life are at risk of becoming targets. We underestimate this risk at our peril.
Though children who have fallen out of education are likely to be targeted, criminal exploitation isn’t a problem confined to the most deprived areas and parts of society, or the most vulnerable. All children, including those in areas of relative affluence, are fair game for these criminals. We have heard of gangs targeting private school children, for example, because they are less likely to arouse suspicion.
As you would expect, our study finds that strong multi-agency work, and a system-wide approach, is the first and best line of defence. It is so important that all local partners work together, to share intelligence and identify and respond to emerging risks. And by that, I mean all, from local authority children and adult’s services, health, police, and education.
All of us, in our daily lives, whether at work or outside work, may see things and report our concerns. And local businesses can be part of the problem, but also part of the solution, contributing to the flow of information that you need, as well as the community at large. But ultimately, poor practice in just one function limits the effectiveness of a whole partnership.
Most of all, we must all be prepared. I am very concerned that despite the hard lessons we have all learned from past failures to pick up on child sexual exploitation, similar mistakes could be being made now.
We have seen, before, the dangers of not discussing contextual or risk factors that relate to race or religion, for example. Doing so can be difficult and should always be done with care, in a way that doesn’t inflame tensions or encourage prejudice. But if we are to do what we need to do for children, they must be discussed. Openly, carefully, responsibly and at the right time.
Local partners must be quick to learn, and quick to act. But not all agencies fully understand the scale of the problem in their area. And regional and national networks of exploitation of children are even less well understood. This means that agencies are not always spotting children who are at risk, let alone supporting them as victims.
It is also a concern that some agencies are still not looking past the behaviour of grooming victims to get to the root cause. If we have learnt anything from past exploitation cases, it should be to see the child, not the problem.
Better training will help. But a culture shift, as we saw with child sexual exploitation, is needed. Clearly, a child carrying Class A drugs or a weapon presents a child protection issue, even if they appear to be perpetrators themselves. Similarly, professionals need to stick with children who are persistently offending, even if they are difficult to engage with, and look at children’s behaviour in the context of their often troubled, chaotic, lives.
Prevention, too, is better than cure. Work with children, parents, schools and local communities to raise awareness of the problem is crucial. As a parent you might sense something is wrong with your child. But how many suspect their child is being groomed? For most, it is almost inconceivable.
Some areas have built on their approach to child sexual exploitation, and are incorporating all forms of child exploitation in their work. But given the nature of exploitation, and the reach of these criminals, this needs to be happening across the whole country.
There is good work going on, as today’s report shows. Recent modern slavery prosecutions, linked to ‘county lines’, are a good step forward. And the newly established Coordination Centre should inform a more coordinated approach to disrupt and prevent exploitation.
I would just ask you all to think about your own local response. Don’t wait until the next high-profile operation, court case, or newspaper headline. If partners are not already working together effectively, they need to do so now. Because there is a real urgency to this work. Children who are being exploited cannot wait for agencies that are lagging behind or failing to recognise the issue. And no one should be thinking “this does not happen in our area”. The mix of areas in this survey shows that.
This is an area of complex crime, on a level and scale that did not exist a couple of decades ago. We are all having to get our heads around it. We have given our social care inspectors extra training, so we can be sure that they are having the right conversations with you about what is happening on your patch.
We know these are messages that will resonate with you. It is not a problem that any one agency can address on their own. Those who work in children’s services have an important part to play, but are just one part of a much bigger picture.’