Criminal gangs grooming middle-class teenagers to sell drugs, report warns

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Children and teenagers from middle-class families are being groomed to sell drugs by criminal gangs, a parliamentary report claims. 

It says youngsters from "stable and economically better-off" backgrounds are at risk of being drawn in, coerced and exploited by urban crime networks.

The report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults follows warnings that children are being used in a drug distribution model known as "county lines".

This typically involves city gangs branching out into county or coastal towns to sell heroin and crack cocaine. 

They deploy children and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between the new market and their urban hub.

The APPG's paper, based on testimony given at a meeting of experts, parents and agencies earlier this year, says: "The participants of the roundtable heard that any child can be groomed for criminal exploitation.

"It affects boys and girls, children from families that experience a range of issues as well those from stable and economically better off families.

"Some children are initially approached by their peers, who have also been groomed and exploited, which can make it even harder for them to identify the risks without prior education."

The briefing warns that children and young people who go missing from home or care are at "serious risk" of being targeted for involvement in gangs, trafficking, criminalisation, sexual exploitation and violence.

The inquiry was told that children as young as eight or nine are being regularly groomed and exploited by gangs. 

It raises concerns that vulnerable youngsters who are exploited by gangs to distribute drugs are often perceived to have "made a choice" and are criminalised, rather than safeguarded and recognised as victims.

Labour MP Ann Coffey, chair of the APPG, said: "Young people who are groomed into drug-running by adults are being exploited in the same way as those who are enticed into sexual activity.

"They too are vulnerable and need our support.

"Children from all backgrounds can be affected.

"We need a greater understanding and awareness of this kind of criminal exploitation of children and better training to ensure it is recognised and prevented at an early stage.

"Once a child is criminalised it is very hard to get them back to the other side of the law."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Missing children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and it is absolutely abhorrent that county lines gangs are seeking to exploit them and other vulnerable young people.

"Improvements have been made to the accuracy of police crime recording, including in instances of abduction, because it is essential that we fully understand the extent of the issue.

"There is more that all partners can do, which is why we are tackling county lines through a national action plan and reviewing our cross-Government strategy on Missing Children and Adults and developing a clear implementation plan for delivery."