Oxfordshire social workers are on the front line of the fight against drugs gangs

Children’s social workers face many difficult and challenging situations in their line of work – but none more so than trying to prevent young people from being exploited by drugs gangs.

Gangs and organised crime networks across the country recruit children to sell drugs, particularly moving drugs from large cities to smaller towns and villages. This drugs trade is now widely referred to as ‘County Lines’.

Highlighting the warning signs

Karen Hulston is an Oxfordshire County Council children’s social care worker, who works in the north Oxfordshire area. Karen and her colleagues work closely with other organisations such as the police, NHS and district councils to protect children, prevent abuse and help those who have been exploited and abused.

They are keen to highlight the warning signs of children at risk of being sucked into the drugs trade so that family, friends and professionals working with children can raise the alarm.

Karen said: “We are dealing with children who have been groomed. They are scared and we and our partners including the police, health professionals and teachers have been trained to spot the signs of a child who may be exploited. Parents often feel desperate and at a loss because they are unable to control what their child is doing and who they are associating with.”

“We know that signs include a child becoming violent and uncharacteristically rude or obnoxious with their parents, teachers and others, returning home late, staying out all night or going missing - being found in areas away from home

“Other signs we look out for include increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them, being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going, unexplained absences from school, unexplained money, phones clothes or jewellery, using violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know, coming home with injuries or looking particularly dishevelled and having hotel cards or keys to unknown places.

The numbers of children who are exploited or suspected of being exploited at any one time is comparatively small both locally and nationally. But organisations in Oxfordshire regard any child being abused as one too many and are determined to make it hard for drugs gangs to operate in this way.

Councils, the police, the NHS and other organisations in Oxfordshire have had real success in embedding the use of a “screening tool”, which helps frontline staff to spot children at risk of child sexual exploitation.

Now the approach has been adapted to cover all forms of exploitation including child drug exploitation. The screening tools lists all of the factors that in combination would show if a child may be starting to become at risk of being exploited – triggering professionals to act quickly.

Meanwhile professional social workers like Karen and colleagues from each agency provide support for specific school communities when that school has raised concerns that students might be being targeted by gangs.

In these circumstances, experts from the police, social care, the NHS and others work closely and intensively as a support team surrounding the young people in question and their families. Local meetings for schools and other professionals are held to identify children at risk of getting drawn into the drugs gangs.

A major risk factor for children at risk of exploitation is if they go missing. In their most recent inspection in 2018, Ofsted said that missing children’s processes at Oxfordshire County Council are “robust” and say that “a dedicated panel of professionals from various agencies tracks and cross references missing children” while “Return home interviews are timely, focused and detailed and information derived from interviews is used effectively to analyse patterns and trends.”

Karen Hulston added: “It’s so important that we are patient and persistent. We spend time building a relationship with them and gaining trust. We help them to understand that gang members are not their friends and that they are exploiting them and exposing them to serious harm. Supporting parents and family members is such an important part of the process in bringing about change and helping them to regain authority in the situation.

“We work hard to build the young person’s self-esteem and enable them to get control over their own life. We encourage them to engage in education and follow other interests and friends. We have been successful in supporting young people away from the control of their exploiters by using this approach.

“In this way they become more able to stand up for themselves and less vulnerable to being exploited. It’s all about helping them to believe in a happier and healthier future as well as finding ways to immediately protect them from their abusers.”

Community around the school

Oxfordshire County Councils’ Deputy Director for Children’s Social Care Hannah Farncombe emphasises the importance of all professionals with responsibility for children’s safety working closely together so they can spot the risks and see connections between different parts of children’s lives.

She said: “We are about to adopt the use of a screening tool to establish whether a child may be vulnerable to being exploited by a drug gang or actually starting to be exploited. This can and does happen in rural areas and small towns as well as the bigger places such as Oxford and Banbury.

“We now have a “community around the school” approach, when individual schools identify a number of students under pressure and threat from adults who try to exploit them.

“This brings together the professionals within the school, who are responsible for safeguarding, with the police, social workers, health professionals and voluntary agencies in the locality to create a ring of support and take actions together to reduce the risk of harm for all the children attending.

“We try to consistently strengthen protective factors in an individual family’s circumstances, promote parental control of the child and increase the child’s motivation to engage in education and constructive activities to avoid the ‘pull’ of gangs.

“We know that being persistent and building a relationship with a child is essential and we have learned from our expertise in dealing with child sexual exploitation that taking a child in to care does not guarantee that ties to exploitation will be cut – and can in some ways increase vulnerability.

“We make careful judgements on a case by case basis and only recommend care if we have strong indications that it will increase safety for the child.”

If you think you have spotted a young person displaying the signs of someone who may be being exploited by a gang call the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub on 0345 050 7666.

If you want to report an issue anonymously phone Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.