‘We can’t arrest our way out of it’ - £250,000 taskforce formed to stop children being recruited by drugs gangs
PUBLISHED: 19:56 18 September 2018 | UPDATED: 20:22 18 September 2018
A new £250,000 taskforce has been set up to stop drug gangs grooming vulnerable children to work for them in Norfolk.
Norwich, and wider Norfolk, have been hit by the county lines drugs networks, which sees criminal gangs in bigger cities, including London, move their dealing to smaller areas.
Police around the country have warned that the gangs are exploiting vulnerable children, with some as young as 12 lured in with the promise of money, status or friendship.
And Norfolk police figures show children as young as 14 have been charged with supply heroin in the last year.
Police crackdowns such as Operations Gravity and Granary have gone some way to disrupting the flow of drugs, the force has said other dealers will replace those who are jailed. Instead, they say working with young people who may be targeted is key.
And Norfolk County Council has now revealed it has set up a dedicated team, worth £250,000 a year, to try and shield children from drugs gangs.
Initially made up of eight people but likely to grow, it is part of its youth offending team, which sees police, teachers, nurses, probation officers and social workers come together.
Chris Small, from the team, said it was created after a “greater proportion” of the team’s work became focused on criminal child exploitation cases.
They will work closely with other services and parents and carers, and focus on raising awareness and training, advising staff working with children, intervention and enforcement.
The council says fewer than 1pc of its looked-after children have been involved in county lines.
Penny Carpenter, chairman of the council’s children’s services team, said: “Children from all backgrounds are being groomed by criminals. These children are victims – we want to protect them and give them a future.”
Dozens of county lines dealers have been jailed over the last few months, but the efforts have been compared to cutting a head off the mythical serpent Hydra - another grows.
Jane Watkin, chairman of the Russell Street Community Area Residents Association, which was formed in January, said the problems felt “out of control”.
“Elderly people here don’t go out at night, and you often feel intimidated,” she said. “Police are very vigilant and there are always cars on Clifton Street, but it is an ongoing thing. You can often smell the marijuana, but that isn’t the concern, it’s the harder drugs. We see it happening everywhere.”
She said there was often young people, with hoods up and on bikes, involved in the activity.
Emma Corlett, a Labour county councillor and member of the children’s services committee, agreed it was a difficult mountain to climb.
“It isn’t a problem we can arrest our way out of,” she said. “We are talking about vulnerable young people, and a criminal justice response is not going to solve it. It’s a public health issue, it’s a young engagement issue.
“If you have got young people who are earning cash in hand, what have we got to offer them as an alternative? An apprenticeship?”
In an interview with the Daily Mail, assistant chief constable Paul Sanford said a challenge was when children from Metropolitan areas who were in care were rehoused or put in care homes in Norfolk.
“While those places are absolutely appropriate, it does bring some of their lifestyle up with them so sometimes it is difficult to know the children who are residing in the area and the backgrounds of them,” he said.
For Sonia Humphreys, chief inspector with Norwich police, the core of the issue is supply and demand.
“If there is demand for class A drug use then supply will follow,” she said. “So there has to be preventative work to reduce that demand.”
She moved to reassure people in Norwich that they were working hard in the area, and were key to ensure people felt proud to live in their areas.