Young people transporting Class A drugs into Norfolk should be treated as a victims, charity claims
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
Vulnerable young people who are exploited by London gangs to transport drugs into Norfolk should be treated as victims, rather than criminals, according to the NSPCC.
The children's charity made the comments following the publication of a new report on how children and young adults who go missing are at serious risk of being targeted for involvement in crime.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group paper on runaway and missing children states that those groomed by gangs are used to smuggle and sell drugs outside of London and establish 'county lines' with local users.
Using Islington as an example, the report revealed there were at least three instances whereby individuals from the London borough were linked to county lines activity in Norfolk.
But Joe Caluori, Islington Council's executive member for children, young people and families, said it was only likely to be the 'tip of the iceberg'.
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Along with the NSPCC, Mr Caluori, said young people arrested in connection with Class A drug supply are often victims themselves.
The report comes as Norfolk Police continues its efforts through Operation Gravity to crack down on London gangs supplying the county with drugs.
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Since the start of Operation Gravity in December 2016, 35 people under the age of 18 have been arrested in Norfolk.
The report states that gang exploitation is not limited to London, and experts have warned there is evidence they are targeting young people in our county.
An NSPCC spokesperson for the East of England said: 'This report rightly recognises the need to offer support to vulnerable children who've become embroiled in gangs and used in drug dealing.
'It's vital that as a society we recognise the signs of grooming, and understand that young people in Norfolk can be groomed for a variety of sinister motives – whether for sex, radicalisation or by gangs.
'Children who have been groomed are victims and need help to get their lives back on track.'
Superintendent Dave Marshall, from Norfolk Police, said if a young person is found in possession of drugs or weapons, they are committing a crime.
He said it was the police's duty to deal with criminal matters in the first instance, while also establishing how they found the young person found themselves in that situation.
But he added that police do work with Norfolk County Council to identify who is best placed to give ongoing support to a young person.
'Often, as the child is from a different locality, details are passed to the authorities closest to the young person's home address,' Mr Marshall said.
'We realise that gangs from metropolitan areas are exploiting young people and using them to traffic their drugs in and out of county. 'Operation Gravity was set up to tackle these issues which include drug dealing, identifying offenders, building intelligence and putting steps in place to support the young people who have been exploited.'
A 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old from the London area are among those arrested in Norwich in the past six months.
The report included information collated by the Safer Islington Partnership (SIP) about how young people from within the borough were linked with county lines activity outside of London.
Those identified were aged between 14 to 32 years, with 45pc of individuals being under the age of 18.
Mr Caluori, who is part of the SIP, said these individuals were often vulnerable because they were around dangerous people.
'They are paired with an older gang member, who is called a soldier, and they will travel to a location outside of London,' he said.
'So it could be Swaffham or King's Lynn, and they will go to the main shopping area, befriend an addict, and then take over that person's house, which will become a trap house.'
He said the homes are then used to deal drugs from, and a phone line is established which is handed out to local addicts.
Mr Caluori added: 'The big thing for us is when police from Norfolk find an individual from our borough and arrest them, we want police to treat them as vulnerable people, rather than a criminal, because they are essentially working as slaves.'
Anyone with concerns that a child is involved in a gang should call 0808 800 5000.
The report is the result of discussions and research carried out by experts working in various sectors, including the National Crime Agency, police and the Home office.
Among the concerns highlighted in the report, it stated that vulnerable and young people who are exploited by gangs to distribute drugs are often criminalised rather than safeguarded.
'The needs of children targeted by gangs and risks to their safety and wellbeing are not recognised by professionals responding to children who go missing,' it said.
A list of recommendations from the report include:
• Local authorities should ensure that high quality return interviews are being offered to every child after a missing incident.
• Police forces and local authorities should work together to effectively map missing episodes relating to gang exploitation, including county lines in their area.
Cowards of the first order
Penny Carpenter, Chairman of the Children's Services Committee at Norfolk County Council, said: 'Unscrupulous adults who are only interested in setting up their lines of distribution lure young, impressionable children by pretending to be their friend and mentor, assuring friendship and protection in order to manipulate the young person into doing their bidding.
'They are cowards of the first order and would drop and run at the first hint of trouble. This puts the young person at high risk of harm, exploitation, becoming involved unwittingly into criminal gangs, being at the mercy of these criminals and at the risk of becoming harmed if they want to escape.
A spokesman said: 'We are part of the Community Safety Partnership, which is currently developing a multi-agency strategy aimed at supporting vulnerable people, in Norfolk with the aim of preventing their involvement in the drugs trade and diverting them away from crime.'