WORK preventing children getting involved in drug running has a ‘long way to go’, an expert in early intervention has warned.
Youngsters in Portsmouth are increasingly being targeted by criminal gangs, in line with a national trend, who use them as drug runners or use their bank accounts to launder cash.
While a dedicated police unit has made 120 arrests in a year, a top worker in early intervention has said more agencies need to be involved preventing youngsters being enticed into criminal gangs.
Around 200 children potentially at risk of being exploited have received training via Active Communities Network, which operates in Portsmouth and Havant.
Another 350 professionals, including foster carers, have been trained to spot signs of criminal exploitation.
Julian Wadsworth, from ACN, works with children aged nine to 18. He said: ‘My concern is what happens if we don’t start being proactive in early intervention and prevention.
‘We don’t want to have to train young people coming through who are already being exploited and the tentacles of quick cash and glamorous lifestyle take hold and it’s harder to work with them.’
He added: ‘I still think we’ve got a long way to go in our work around child criminal exploitation.’
Mr Wadsworth said more pupils at schools should be taught about criminal exploitation in PHSE classes at school - and even potentially speaking to youngsters at risk coming up from primary school.
Mr Wadsworth said: ‘They’re being coerced or gravitating towards being the runners in their local community.
‘That increases violence and exploitation of other young people who might not be gravitating towards that.
‘They’re all being exploited - some people have some understanding of what’s going on - other people have no understanding of what’s going on.’
He added: ‘If you’ve got 11-year-olds looking up to 14-year-olds in contact with organised crime gang then if we don’t get in and do proper intervention and give young people proper aspirations to look up to them we’re going to have a bottleneck, that’s if law enforcement can’t covertly and overtly wipe this out.
‘That seems an unreasonable expectation.’
Most people being targeted by out-of-town dealers are boys - but Mr Wadsworth warns girls could be drawn in too.
‘I’m also concerned about some of our younger 14 or 16-year-old girls linked to 16 or 17-year-old boys, you can see the risk factors developing there.
‘I don’t think you should see this as a male thing.’
CITY COUNCIL SAYS IT HAS TRAINED 100 STAFF
PORTSMOUTH City Council confirmed it had trained 100 frontline staff in schools, youth services and children’s social care about the problem.
Alison Jeffery, director of children's services at the city council, said: ‘We're working with the police to support their harm reduction approach as we fully recognise the risks to children and young people in Portsmouth of being exploited and trapped into running drugs through county lines.
‘The Portsmouth Children's Safeguarding Board has put on workshops for over 100 front-line staff working in schools, youth services and children's social care to help them understand the risks to young people.
‘We've also provided training for staff on how to engage and support teenagers away from negative behaviours.
‘We continue to work closely with the police to support our most vulnerable children and back their call for communities to share information and to seek support as we all need to work closely with communities to help keep our young people safe.’
TOP POLICE OFFICER WARNS ABOUT DANGER TO CHILDREN IN PORTSMOUTH
The detective leading the fight against drug dealers in Portsmouth this week warned that children in the city are being targeted by pushes recruiting into their gangs.
Det Chief Insp Nick Heelan said that youngsters are being threatened with rape and other violence and are seeing their families targeted as gangs try to recruit locally as they set up ‘county lines’-type dealing networks. The county lines system often sees young runners distributing drugs in a city – either sent from elsewhere or recruited locally.
While the problem is not worse in Portsmouth than in other parts of the country, Det Chief Insp Heelan sent out a warning this week to parents, carers and teachers in the city, saying that warning signs could be children with extra cash, new trainers, or other unexplained gifts – possible indications that dealers are softening up their targets.