'Perfect storm of cuts' - calls to tackle youth violence 'crisis'
PUBLISHED: 17:58 31 July 2019 | UPDATED: 17:58 31 July 2019
Children cautioned or sent to court in Norfolk has almost halved in five years as youth crime was today described as a 'national emergency'.
And last year police and youth workers have changed tack with a new plan to protect children from falling into crime.
The Norfolk youth offending team (YOT) has been leading a new pilot to draw youngsters away from exploitation.
One priority is prising youngsters away from the allure of county lines drug gangs - known to target towns and cities out of area and exploit local children as 'mules'.
"We do not want to criminalise children, we want to safeguard children," said Norwich police commander, superintendent Terry Lordan.
The child criminal exploitation team was launched in Norfolk last year, and is funded to March 2020.
"Children that are exploited by criminals are particularly vulnerable to violence and intimidation and we are working in partnership to help keep the county's children safe," a YOT spokesperson said.
In the last five years the number of youth offences being brought to court in Norfolk has fallen by a quarter, and those cautioned or charged by police has fallen by almost half.
Since 2015 the team has attempted to divert children away from youth court through the Challenge 4 Change programme.
It delivers short interventions to divert young people from cautions or court appearances after a referral from the police after arrest or interview.
In recent years first time youth offenders have fallen by a fifth and are at an "historic low", according to the YOT.
But they added "young people being exploited in the supply of drugs" is stifling the reduction, and "exploitation resulting in violence and knife crime may affect our ability to maintain low custody rates".
By far the most common offences that do go to youth court is violence.
Almost a third of youth crimes brought to court since 2013 have been violence against the person - more than 2,000 offences.
The response from police has been to target the threat of drug dealing and knife crime, with weapon seizures rising by half last year and more than 1,000 arrests in the fight against county lines.
Norfolk chief constable Simon Bailey has said the force has "the most robust response in the country to county lines" since the launch of the force's Operation Gravity in late 2016.
Two weeks ago police in Norwich launched an operation against a gang of up to 30 youths in Chapelfield Gardens, suspected of dealing drugs and carrying knives.
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Norwich chief inspector Sonia Humphries said: "Crime and the associated activity can be driven by exploitation when the children of Norfolk become targeted by county lines drug dealing.
"Young men and women are being used to transport drugs and knives and that comes with a huge amount of risk."
This week the Commons home affairs select committee called youth violence a "social emergency".
A report said there was a "serious mismatch" between the government's diagnosis of the problem and its solutions, and its serious violence strategy lacked leadership and focus.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, said youth violence has got worse after a "perfect storm of cuts" to youth services and the police.
She called youth crime a "crisis" and said: "Far more needs to be done to intervene early in young people's lives, making sure they have safe places to go to and trusted adults to help them and protect them from harm.
"So much of this support has been stripped away, leaving children vulnerable to exploitation by criminal groups."
The Norfolk YOT said the issue of child criminal exploitation is an "emerging national problem".
They added they will develop on the work of the child criminal exploitation team to "further develop work" to safeguard children.
A spokesperson for the Norfolk Youth Offending Team said: "Child criminal exploitation is an emerging national problem but one that Norfolk has been proactive in working to tackle and prevent.
"We have a specialist team in place that includes social workers, detached youth workers, police and members of the youth offending team.
"They are working collectively to identify and support children and young people that are either victims or at risk of criminal exploitation.
"The work that they do varies because it is based on the individual needs of that child or young person and their family.
"This is currently a pilot, so we'll be looking at what works well both here and in other areas of the country as we further develop work in this area."
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, responding to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Serious Violence, said: "Many of the mistakes that led to failings in child sexual exploitation are now being repeated.
"They are generational, complex and will require significant funding to turn around.
"We need a large-scale and long term plan that includes a new generation of youth workers, more investment in early years and troubled families programmes, better children's mental health services, a strategy to tackle school exclusions and keeping schools open for longer to help protect some of the most vulnerable children.
"Too many families and communities are being wrecked and too many childhoods broken by the scourge of gangs and criminal exploitation.
"Until the Government treats this as a top priority, young people will continue to be caught up in gangs and serious violence, and children will continue to die on our streets."