Protecting children in care from criminal exploitation

Work with Offenders looks at the latest instalment of the Howard League’s campaign to end the criminalisation of children in residential care

The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK;  established in 1866 and is named after John Howard, one of the first prison reformers. Since 2016 the charity has been running a very successful programme of work to end the criminalisation of children in residential care. Working directly with local police services and the residential care sector, the Howard League has substantially reduced the number of children living in residential care who have been arrested for minor offences or misbehaviour and prevented them from ending up with a criminal record which further limits their opportunities.

However, despite this progress, a number of criminal gangs, specifically those involved in operating “County lines” drug dealing operations are taking advantage of failings in children’s social care and central government oversight to exploit and abuse children in residential care.

Last week the Howard League published a new briefing looking at how children in residential care are being criminalised for offences they are committing as a direct result of child criminal exploitation. You can read the briefing here.

The briefing is based on extensive research with several hundred people with knowledge of the children’s residential care sector and/or child criminal exploitation. It highlights concerns about the high level of risk of exploitation and abuse by gangs and criminal records to which children living in residential care are being exposed.

Understanding CCE and County Lines 

The Howard League makes the point that the criminality children may be involved with as part of their exploitation and abuse is much broader than the official definitions used by the Home Office can convey. While children are most likely to be identified as being exploited if they are caught carrying drugs or are involved in violence -related activities, there are many other indicators of exploitation, typically theft and non-payment of train tickets as these children travel to fulfil their roles as drug couriers.

It is clear that the gangs running county lines exploit children to conduct their criminal activities both in order to escape detection and because children are easier to control and manipulate than adults. Vulnerable children are specifically targeted and those in residential care, who are least likely to have a caring adult looking out for them and noticing what is going on in their lives, are particularly at risk. In some places, criminals will hang around children’s homes. Children are also targeted at other locations, such as parks, bus stops and near free Wi-Fi – wherever young people hang out. The recruitment of vulnerable children has become increasingly sophisticated with gang members befriending children and offering gifts such as small amounts of drugs or a new phone. Gangs can offer that sense of protection and family which children may be lacking at home; in many cases girls may believe they are in a romantic relationship.

Three quarters of children’s homes in England are owned by private companies and the Howard League states that the primary focus on profits of these providers means that children’s homes are usually situated in less expensive parts of the country, frequently in disadvantaged areas. Pressure on places because of the growing numbers of children coming into care and the unequal distribution of homes around the country that has led to a situation where more than 40% of looked after children are living outside their home area. Although this might be the right option for some children, it is increasingly recognised that placing children far away from home can make them more vulnerable to exploitation as well as facilitating the development of new county lines operations.

The briefing highlights the fact that the county lines business model has thrived on the boundaries operated by the 40 police forces and 343 local authorities in England and urges agencies to find ways to overcome the problems created by this fragmentation. In some parts of the country an exploited child is recognised as a victim and is safeguarded, while elsewhere they be treated as criminals and gang members. The current situation means that often the police pick up an exploited child hundreds of miles from their home but can’t get in touch with anyone in the home police force or local authority who will take responsibility to make sure that child is safely returned. 


The report concludes that the current structure of the residential children’s homes sector and the lack of central government oversight and control is putting children in danger and enabling the spread of exploitation and criminality around the country.