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Missing People publishes new research showing failures of services in responding to and supporting those affected by criminal exploitation, including county lines.

"All of us were broken", an exploratory study exploring the experiences of family members whose children have been criminally exploited and been frequently missing, shows that families are being failed, forgotten and ignored by services.  

Findings in the report include common early warning signs of exploitation, the links between missing and exploitation / county lines, and the severe implications of not providing effective intervention at early stages of grooming.

Families spoke of the failures of services to both recognise and respond to exploitation and county lines:

  • Agencies, including schools, local authorities, the police and social workers did not have a good enough awareness of criminal exploitation, especially the early warning signs of grooming
  • Families were not listened to and their concerns about their child were not taken seriously
  • Specialist support was not available for the children or their families
  • Children were commonly criminalised, and not seen as victims of exploitation
  • Return from missing was not used as an opportunity to safeguard exploited children and their families
  • Attempts to support children came much too late and were not successful

Talking about their decision to take part in the research, one participant said: “My life’s journey of having a child being criminally exploited has been an absolute nightmare on all levels. Something drastically needs to change in how agencies are responding to exploitation. This report could not have come quickly enough. It’s been so important to share my personal story in the hope that it provokes questions, awareness, advocacy for affected families, and public services coming together to understand that our children and young people are victims, not criminals.

Missing People is calling on all professionals working with children who are being exploited and their families to use the accounts families shared so generously with us to stimulate change and ensure there is an effective response for children and their families. This should include:

  • Training on key warning signs of exploitation, including missing, sources of support for exploited children and their families, and strategies for engaging young people at risk of exploitation. The relevant inspectorates, including Ofsted, HMICFRS and HMI Probation should include a check on whether this training is taking place during their inspections.
  • The Department for Education should develop guidance for families to be shared with and then disseminated by local authorities.
  • An improved response to missing to ensure children are safeguarded from criminal exploitation. This should include using intelligence from missing person investigations and safe and well checks to map local CCE hotspots and operational models of CCE.
  • Better use of Return Home Interviews to identify warning signs, map the local, regional and national picture of exploitation, and share information to safeguard individuals
  • The Home Office should ensure a national, joined up approach to support for exploitation victims and their families
  • Better, more effective working across administrative boundaries
  • Effective use of the National Referral Mechanism for victims of child criminal exploitation

Jane Hunter, Senior Research and Impact Manager at Missing People, said: “While the understanding of and response to child criminal exploitation and county lines is improving, our research shows that there is still a long way to go. Families spoke of the life changing impacts of exploitation on their children and themselves, and the many, many missed opportunities to intervene and provide support. Families felt, and in some cases continue to feel, isolation, fear, judgement and helplessness. We hope that this research can provide a driver to ensure that families and children are much better supported in the future, and do not have to face the devastation of exploitation alone.”

We are indebted to the families who took part in this research and chose to share their experiences in such detail and so honestly.

To read the full report please click here.

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