County lines: Parents warned children's 'self harm' could be a sign of involvement in drug trafficking
Although police insist ‘County Lines’ gangs are yet to take root in the North East, officers are urging the public to make sure they can recognise the signs that it may be going on.
A common tactic to trap youngsters in the trade often sees them initially enticed with an offer of up to £500 to act as a courier for their first illicit delivery.
But on their second outing criminal bosses may orchestrate fake robberies as a way of securing their services in ‘debt bondage’ in lieu of payment for supposedly stolen cash, drugs or even weapons.
“A classic sign is children persistently going missing,” said Jackie Nolan, business manager at the South Tyneside Safeguarding Children Partnership (STSCP).
“They come in with wads of cash or new clothes, or excessive amounts of new clothes, they have relationships with older children or with adults or they may leave care without explanation.
“Once they’re immersed in this kind of activity you may suspect self harm, but it’s not normally self harm, it’s actually that they’ve been assaulted.”
Nolan was speaking at a meeting of the Hebburn Community Area Forum (CAF) as part of a round of presentations to raise awareness of ‘County Lines’ trafficking.
The term refers to the phone lines set up by gangs in major cities, such as London and Birmingham, to supply areas further afield with illegal goods or to launder money.
Children and other vulnerable people are often targeted to become criminal couriers as it is thought they attract less suspicion and because of the way they are dealt with by the courts.
Transporting packages can often take youngsters to unfamiliar towns and cities far from their homes, potentially leading to further exploitation.
Coun Wilf Flynn, who chaired the meeting, said: “If anyone is worried about passing information to the police, pass it to your local councillor.
“There’s probably activity that goes on everyday and we just don’t realise what it really is.”