Oxfordshire social workers team-up with national TV documentary in fight against drugs gangs

Oxfordshire social workers are using a national TV documentary to put the spotlight on gangs and organised crime networks who ruthlessly recruit local children to sell drugs.

Oxfordshire County Council’s social care and early help teams work in partnership with families, schools, health and the police to protect children from exploitation.

They engage children and families in activities, delivering protective behaviours work in schools, including raising awareness in assemblies and plays. For young people who are at higher risk, the teams do specialist intensive one to one work with children, and their parents and families, as well as group work.

The county council knows of about 280 children who are, who could be, or have been, at risk of exploitation, who are being supported by its teams across social care, early help and youth justice.

There is already a close working relationship between the county council and other organisations such as the police, NHS and district councils to protect children.

Now they have teamed-up with Channel 4 to warn parents of both the dangers and the tell-tale signs of child exploitation.

Karen Hulston, from Oxfordshire County Council’s family social services team, will feature in the forthcoming Channel 4 documentary. She said:

“It’s frightening that many parents and guardians have no idea a child is being groomed, but there are indicators to watch for.

“Signs include unexpected gifts: phones, money, expensive branded clothing; going missing or absent from school.

“Changes in behaviour such as increased anxiety, depression, disruptiveness; disengagement from learning or normal activities; becoming secretive; new friends or associates not known to the family; and self-harm; aggression towards others.”

The documentary brings to life a challenging national issue at a local level.

Observing a number of Oxfordshire families, the film shows that while drugs gangs profit, many parents feel powerless as their children risk their lives carrying crack cocaine and heroin and staying in so-called ‘trap houses’ for weeks at a time.

Hannah Farncombe, Oxfordshire County Council’s Deputy Director of Children’s Social Care (pictured), explains:

“The gangs thrive on smart phones, taking advantage of the ability to operate covertly and the fact that distance is no longer a barrier to operating drugs markets.

“Offenders exploit children and vulnerable adults who have no profile with the police, taking advantage of their naivety and intimidating them into silence. These tactics make county lines difficult for the police to investigate and prosecute.”

In Oxfordshire, there is a nationally commended specialist team combatting sexual exploitation and developing practice in respect of drug exploitation and child trafficking.

This work is difficult and complex and can only be successful through coordinated efforts among police, schools, health services, social care, voluntary organisations, parents and children themselves.

Hannah said: “Grooming is a very manipulative process that often begins with befriending, the giving of gifts, making young people feel special and then progressing towards coercion and aggressive controls.

“Children are then often asked to carry drugs or undertake other tasks for the gang, they can end up with drug debts when money or drugs are taken from them; or be tricked into having drug debts by being robbed by gang members.

“They are then subject to threats or actual violence, towards themselves or loved ones, forcing them to continue to work for the gang and maintain their silence. They are often terrified and unable to trust anyone who may be trying to help them.

“It is important that we start with raising awareness amongst children, young people and families and enable them to spot the dangers. We then need to work together across schools, colleges, police, health and children’s organisations to ensure a coordinated response which offers preventative services as well as intensive help for those who are embroiled.”

Karen Hulston, from Oxfordshire County Council’s family social services team, added:

“Children and young people need relationships of trust and understanding that persevere in helping them to find safety and re-build a ‘normal’ adolescence and engagement in education and training.

“Oxfordshire County Council social services works with families to encourage a closer relationship between parents, guardians and siblings. Fishing with dad, supporting young people in sports and hobbies; even moving to live with a relative in a different neighbourhood to encourage a ‘fresh start’.

“The family bond and support are important in developing a sense of belonging when teenagers are at an impressionable, but also vulnerable stage of their lives.

“There are examples of children from all walks of life being targeted in all kinds of locations.

“However, whilst we want to raise awareness, it’s also important that we put things into context; exploitation happens to a minority of children.”

Channel 4’s documentary, 'Britain's Child Drug Runners', is scheduled to broadcast on Wednesday 13 November at 10pm.

The documentary has been produced in partnership between Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police. Read their joint press release here.

For help and advice, visit Thames Valley Police’s website