Ann Coffey


Local councils unwittingly acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ for County Lines gangs

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September 16th 2019

Local councils are unwittingly acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ for County Lines drugs gangs by sending vulnerable children to live miles away from home, according to a parliamentary inquiry out today.

Evidence submitted to the inquiry suggests thousands of children are being put at risk by being moved to children’s homes up to 100 miles from where they live.

This “sent away generation” become magnets for paedophiles and ‘County Lines’ gangs as they are isolated from friends, family and social workers, says the report ‘No Place at Home’ by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults into children missing from out of area placements.

More than 70 per cent of the 41 police forces that responded to the inquiry said that placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation often resulting in them being coerced into going missing.

The inquiry, supported by the Children’s Society, heard that local authorities may also be inadvertently opening up new ‘County Lines’ because relocating children who have been groomed to sell heroin and crack cocaine, can create opportunities for criminals to expand their reach into rural, quieter parts of the country.

There was evidence that county lines gangs have been sent to areas where young people are predominantly placed out of area to scout new ‘opportunities’ where they can develop ‘business’ and recruit new members.

Record numbers of out or area children are repeatedly going missing because they are so unhappy. They run back home, often hitching lifts in remote areas, or they are enticed to run away by people seeking to exploit them. One girl told the inquiry she had run away 100 times since being moved out of county.

Ann Coffey MP, who chaired the inquiry, said was a ‘national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly acting as recruiting sergeants for County Lines gangs.

Despite a government promise to clampdown on out of area placements, and some councils working innovatively to reverse the trend, numbers have still soared since the APPG first raised concerns in 2012.

  • Nationally two thirds (64 per cent) of all children living in children’s homes now live out of area, up from 46 per cent in 2012.
  • In Greater Manchester, of the 443 children in children’s homes, 64 per cent were placed out of area in 2018, a rise of 44 per cent since 2015 from 196 to 283.
  • And the number of children reported missing from out of area placements has more than doubled since 2015, from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018, compared with a 31% increase for those missing from in area placements, according to a Parliamentary Answer received by Ms Coffey in July.
  • In Greater Manchester, the number of children reported missing from out of area placements has also doubled since 2015 from 70 in 2015 rising to 139 in 2018, compared with a 67 per cent rise for those missing from in area placements.
  • Half of all missing episodes (34.060 out of 70,250 nationally) are from children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation.

Ms Coffey said we have now reached ‘crisis point’ and the report recommends that the Department for Education must take responsibility and come up with an Emergency Action Plan to slash the numbers of out of area placements, recognising that they do not keep children safe.

The report also shines a light on a new area of deep concern – the increase in numbers of older children, aged 16 plus, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation, which Ms Coffey describes as a “shady twilight world’.

Eighty per cent of the 40 police forces who gave evidence to the inquiry expressed concern about the increasing numbers in these unregulated establishments. They are ‘off the radar’ because, unlike children’s homes they are not regulated or inspected.

More than 5,000 looked after children in England are living in this sort of accommodation, up 70 per cent from 2,900 ten years ago *6. The report recommends that it must be regulated and inspected.

The report also highlighted a failure of professionals to recognise the trauma and emotional impact that being sent away can have on young people who have already suffered neglect and trauma. Research on identify suggests children are damaged by being moved away and attachments broken.

Examples of the trauma suffered by out of area children, include:

  • A boy who tried to hang himself on Christmas Day after being placed two and half hours away from home.
  • A 15-year-old girl who walked 10 miles back to her mother’s home in another county.
  • Children targeted by paedophiles and County Lines drugs gangs because they find children in out of areas placements easier to exploit.
  • Children shocked, scared and upset at being moved on the same day they were told.
  • Education and access to mental health and special education needs services disrupted. Many go back to the bottom of the queue and so regress. One young person, who has been placed out of area for two years, told us he had only been in mainstream education for two weeks.
  • A boy sent to live in Greater Manchester, more than 50 miles from his home area, began drug running and committing crime in Manchester. He was returned to his local area where, because of contacts he built up in Manchester, he became involved in County Lines drug supply. He started taking local children to Manchester with him and involved them in running drugs across county because they were unknown to the police in Greater Manchester.
  • A young girl victim of child sexual exploitation was placed from Manchester into the West Midlands where she was then targeted by a local Organised Crime Group.  Police and safeguarding partners were not informed – once the police became aware the girl was returned to Manchester.
  • Being placed out of area can often increase the risk to young people trying to get home to see family and friends. One young girl from Greater Manchester was so desperate to get home she would repeatedly hitch a lift despite being warned of the grave risks.

Specific police concerns about unregulated 16 plus accommodation included:

  • Children left isolated and targeted by those wishing to exploit them for sex or to run drugs.
  • Very high numbers repeatedly running away. Police not aware of the homes until there is a missing incident.
  • A child bailed for murder being put into the same semi-independent home as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs across county lines.
  • A girl who had been sexually exploited was housed with a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation.
  • One young person stabbed another after social services knowingly placed two opposing gang members in the same unregistered home.
  • Children often housed alongside adults who may be criminals or have addiction issues.
  • Poorly managed homes with untrained staff situated in risky areas, in cheap locations.
  • ‘Pop up’ children’s homes for 16 plus emerging in areas of high deprivation because there is no regulation and housing is much cheaper, heightening the risk of the most vulnerable children of being exploited.

The inquiry concluded that out of area placements are not made with the best interests of the child in mind but to suit the needs of the market.

It said that children and young people are being placed out of area into children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation due to a lack of suitable provision and the uneven distribution of homes across the country. 75 per cent of all children’s homes are now private and are concentrated in three areas – North West, West Midlands and South East. *7

Many, who gave evidence, said that the system was ‘broken’ because it is not working for children and that market forces were dictating where provision is available.

The Local Government Association said that children’s homes ‘are currently unevenly located around the county, and increasing demand means that councils can sometimes be forced to place children and young people in out of area placements, or placements that are not best suited to their needs.”

Inquiry recommendations include:

  • The Department for Education should take responsibility and set up an Emergency Action Plan, backed up with funding, to slash the numbers of out of area placements recognising that they do not keep children safe. The plan would help local authorities plan sufficient numbers of local placements, which could involve increasing direct provision.
  • The Department for Education and the Home Office should develop a cross-departmental strategy on tackling Child Criminal Exploitation and County lines specifically focusing on the risks to looked after children placed out of area
  • Semi-independent accommodation should be regulated and inspected.
  • Decision to place a child out of area should be supported by evidence to demonstrate that the decision is for the child’s safety.
  • There should be a new requirement on children’s services to demonstrate that children and young people have been consulted in advance.
  • Local authorities required to publish yearly sufficiency reports stipulating the number of in and out of area placements and cost of provision.


Ms Coffey, chair of the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said:

“It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for County Lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away. It must stop.

“Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them.

“By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children.

“Our inquiry has shone a light into the shady twilight world of unregulated accommodation for children aged 16 and over, who become magnets for paedophiles and County Lines drugs gangs. This accommodation must be regulated and inspected.”

Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society said:

“Our enquiry heard some truly shocking examples of the trauma and risk experienced by children placed out of area. It should be a wakeup call for urgent action at both the national and local level. These children are some of the most vulnerable in society, it is vital their needs are put at the centre of all decisions about their placement. No looked after child should be placed simply because that is where a bed is free, instead of that is where the child is most likely to receive the care, support and sense of belonging they deserve.

“We are calling on the Government to put in place an action plan and give councils more funding to ensure that there is a sufficient number of good quality, regulated and inspected care placements where children need them. Only then can we stop this epidemic of children being sent away, left feeling isolated and exposed to high risk.”