Exploitation fears as hundreds of children commit drug offences
Children are being exploited and abused by by gangs who are forcing them to act as drug mules, it has been claimed.
New figures show nearly 400 drug offences were committed by children across the West Midlands and Staffordshire last year, with a charity issuing a stark warning about how exploited children are being treated.
There were 313 drug offences committed by children aged between 10 and 17 in the West Midlands in the 12 months to March 2018, with 55 offences committed in Staffordshire across the same period. Offences include the possession and supply of illegal drugs.
The number of offences in the West Midlands fell compared to 2016-17, when there were 362, but have risen by 20 per cent in Staffordshire. Drug offences among children in Staffordshire had previously fallen year on year since 2014-15.
The Children's Society says gangs often target and exploit vulnerable children, such as those living in poverty or in care, to act as drug mules.
Iryna Pona, policy and research manager for the charity, said: "After being groomed through promises of cash, drugs and a glamorous lifestyle, children are then terrified into following orders and carrying out drug-related crimes.
"We have sadly supported children who have been stabbed, raped and tortured, with their activities monitored through mobile phone live streaming and tracking.
"We want police to recognise that in many cases young people haven’t made a choice to get involved in gangs - they have been groomed and coerced in the same way as we have seen young people groomed and coerced into sexual exploitation."
Across England and Wales the number of drug offences committed by children rose by 2.5 per cent last year to 5,965 – the first increase for 10 years.
A surge in county lines drug networks – which gangs use to transport drugs from urban centres into smaller towns and rural areas – has been blamed for the increase.
The National Crime Agency estimates around 10,000 children as young as 11 years old are now being used as drug mules for county lines gangs.
The gangs use dedicated mobile phone lines to take orders and move drugs across their networks.
Deputy assistant commissioner Duncan Ball, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, said: "Police forces across the UK are working together to dismantle these networks and protect the young and vulnerable people who are exploited by them.
“The work of the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre has resulted in more arrests and large amounts of drugs and weapons taken off our streets.
"We will continue to do all we can to pursue and prosecute those who commit violence and exploit the vulnerable.”
Drug offences made up eight per cent of all proven child offences in the West Midlands last year and six per cent in Staffordshire.