How an increasing number of Norfolk’s children are being arrested over drug crimes
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A growing number of children in Norfolk are becoming caught up in drugs and drug related crime, partly due to the rising impact of County Lines, it has been warned.
More than 240 young people, equating to around two per week, have been arrested in Norfolk for drug offences since January 2018, figures have revealed.
Both police and the Mancroft Advice Project (MAP), a Norwich charity which works with young people from across the county, have said they have seen a rise in number of under 18's involved in drug related activity and have linked that to County Lines, in which dealers from outside of the county are targetting the vulnerable.
Assistant chief constable for Norfolk Constabulary, Julie Wvendth, put the rise down to the proactive work done by officers to tackle County Lines drug dealing.
In 2018, eight children aged between 11 and 14 were arrested in connection to drug offences in Norfolk, increasing to 11 in 2019.
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ACC Wvendth, said: "Operation Gravity has resulted in more than 1,500 arrests with a small proportion of those detained being teenagers or young adults. Where those arrested are responsible for the supply of significant quantities of Class A drugs it is right they are charged and the sanction determined by the courts."
She added how children caught up in County Lines activity were often victims themselves.
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"We realise that many of the young people involved in this criminality are being exploited themselves and police and partners need to support them rather than prosecute. We are working to support local partners in their efforts to enhance the help and support available to those involved in, or at risk of, exploitation.
"However, this work can become difficult when so many of those that we do arrest originate from outside the county and are beyond the reach of local support organisations," she said.
Figures, gained through a Freedom of Information Request, also show boys are nine times more likely to be arrested for a drug related crime than girls.
Over the 24-month period, 23 girls were arrested compared to 216 boys, two arrests were made where the person's gender was not recorded.
Paul Webb, participation youth work manager at MAP, said drug use was a "major issue" which those who access charities like MAP are facing on a daily basis.
He said: "It is directly related to County Lines and culture of drug gangs, which has been on rise in recent years. Norfolk being a rural location was slow to be targeted for County Lines but equally our response as a county was also slow and perhaps complacent."
Mr Webb said police were right to consider the young people caught up in County Lines activity as victims.
"People from low income families, socially deprived areas and those who have grown up in poverty are subject to aggressive and manipulative recruitment.
"We need to focus on early intervention and prevention to solve this ongoing problem."
He said young people needed to be offered opportunities which provided positive alternatives to crime along with role models.
"Young people need to be mentored through some of the periods in their lives, so they can come out the other side, looking to a brighter and optimistic future.
"Unfortunately the youth sector and preventative services for young people are considerably underfunded, and we won't see the progressive outcomes we all want to see for young people without significant investment both locally and nationally," he said.
A spokesperson for Norfolk County Council, which runs the Norfolk Youth Offending Team (YOT), said while some may be concerned by the figures, incidents of younger children getting caught up in drug activity were rare.
"Thankfully, cases involving 11-year-olds have remained relatively rare.
"Our Norfolk YOT's 'Challenge for Change' scheme supports young people at the point of arrest with a voluntary, dedicated intervention programme.
"This has resulted in more than a 50pc reduction in the number of young people entering the youth justice system for the first time in Norfolk since the programme began in June 2015," they said.