Foster carers can be beset by many challenges. Providing care for some of the country’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and teenagers is not an easy job. But when you have made the kind of difference that changes a young person’s world for the better, it is one of the most personally rewarding things anyone can do. There are hazards and risks facing all children as they grow up. That’s a fact of life. But it is the nature of the dangers out there that change. The problem for our society is that these seem to be changing and growing exponentially. Our online lives are probably one of the best examples of a ‘curate’s egg’ that can be given. We can bank online, make purchases, book holidays, meet people and, of course, information on any topic is at our fingertips 24/7. We have been liberated in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few short years ago. But we have also been ensnared: parents have good cause to worry about the risks of social media. Conmen, bullies and paedophiles lurk in the digital world which is one that is changing before our very eyes. People of all ages are vulnerable to all manner of online financial scams. The lives of children and adults even entire families can be wrecked in a variety of ways because we are, via our smartphones, connected with anything and everything literally anywhere. Online gambling when out of control can wreck families – just one example.
The term ‘county lines’ has been referred to with increasing frequency in the media. Children and young adults can be at significant risk from this phenomenon. Especially if their lives become chaotic and dysfunctional. And the risk can escalate if they are not attending school. In simple terms, ‘county lines’ is the term, as defined by the Home Office as “describing gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.”
This is happening across large parts of the country. These criminal gangs traffic drugs and operate in our major cities – London, Birmingham and Liverpool. Children are then used to deal heroin and crack cocaine in smaller towns and rural areas. This is facilitated by a dedicated mobile phone network. Boys, mostly between the ages 15 – 17, are those who are groomed into working for these criminal gangs. Worryingly, children as young as eleven have been shown also to be at risk of being coopted into gangs. And girls have also been targeted. There may also be an element of sexual exploitation- especially; although not exclusively, where females are concerned. It is not uncommon for young people who come into foster care to have to be fostered out of their area to remove the risks from potential gang involvement.
Because of the pressure on schools to achieve good exam results, a disturbing rise in the number of youngsters being ‘off-rolled’ or excluded, has been seen. Foster children who may have experienced multiple placement breakdowns can be especially at risk. This is because they are more likely to have fallen behind educationally and likely to behave in disruptive behaviour. They will be the youngsters likely to drag down a schools overall exam performance so they become logical targets for off rolling. The problem is that by not being in school, they quickly become far more at risk from organised gangs eager to recruit children into trafficking drugs. We should certainly not be ensuring a ready supply of potential new recruits to such criminals. It is perverse indeed that children can become criminalised because schools have been pressured to deliver on exam results. As just one example amongst many as to how county lines affect vulnerable youngsters, it was reported in the press recently that a 17-year-old “with multiple special needs was arrested in possession of a large amount of cash and class A drugs. The boy was receiving a minimal education at a pupil referral unit, where one of the professionals working with him had raised concerns about his association with older people who were linked to drug-related activities.”
Children who are victims of human trafficking are also caught up in county lines. A public law solicitor at Simpson Millar, Sarah Collier, has stated: “Instead of being granted access to vital care and support following what is often brutal and sustained abuse, vulnerable children and teenagers are being criminalised – resulting in lengthy custodial sentences, which have a devastating impact on the rest of their lives.”
There is no doubt that the problem of county lines is escalating. Around 7 forces reported behaviour relating to county lines in 2015, this year 44 forces – including the British Transport police – have recorded county lines activity in their areas. It is not easy to arrive at an accurate figure for the numbers of youngsters involved. This is because a proportion, known as ‘clean skins’ are targeted by the gangs because they are not known to the police. The Children’s Society estimates that around 4,000 teenagers in London are currently being exploited. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, recently put the figure at 46,000 children across England being involved with gangs. She has written previously of her concerns about the risks posed to foster children and children in care by gangs. Another measure that serves to scale the growing nature of the problem is that individual phone numbers linked to use on county lines networks is now around 2,000 – nearly 3 times more than the previously established figure of 720. And the motivation for this criminal activity can be seen when a single line has the potential to deliver £800,000 profit in a single year.
All children – including foster children – are at potential risk. Social media is commonly used to recruit them. This is obviously something that can be hard for all parents – including foster parents to monitor. Communication is essential. If children have some prior knowledge of county lines, they are at least in a position to report any suspicious contacts. Sadly, it may only be after a child or young person has been recruited, that their situation comes to light. Foster parents should be aware that there are certain signs that can be indicators a child has become recruited into county lines activity. It is reprehensible, but a fact, gangs can use violence or its threat to recruit children. If money or drugs go missing, children have been subject to violent assault. Key signs to watch for are:
There may be changes to the immediate environment such as unfamiliar cars or people loitering in the street.
If you have concerns about a child in your care these should be brought to the immediate attention of your supervising social worker. More information and support is available at https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/ as well as https://www.gangsline.com/about.html
Rise to the challenge of fostering with Rainbow.
A pressing shortage of foster parents confronts this country. Around 8,600 new foster families are urgently needed.
If you have been thinking about finding out more about fostering we would like to hear from you. To apply to foster with Rainbow you need to be over 21. You also have to have a spare room available for a child to use. This is a pre-requisite for all independent fostering agencies and local authorities. To find out more, call 020 8427 3355 or our National Line 0330 311 2845. There is no obligation and we are happy to inform you about all the different aspects of fostering. If you then make the decision to proceed, we will arrange a home visit.
The whole process of becoming an approved foster carer can take as little as sixteen weeks. The timescale is dependent upon all checks and references being made and returned.
You might wish to visit these pages on our website – http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/lgbt-foster-carers/
Rainbow Fostering also has a bonus scheme for existing foster carers. If you are a foster carer able to refer a friend or acquaintance to become a carer you will receive payment of £500 once foster carers you referred have accepted their first placement.