county lines drug problems - pic by Kelvyn Skee, creative commons licence

Children in South Cheshire could be at greater risk of exploitation by county lines drug gangs during the coronavirus pandemic, say police.

Officers in Cheshire are working alongside partners to raise awareness of child criminal exploitation – and how to spot the signs.

Detective Inspector Eleanor Atkinson said: “Despite the current national lockdown there is a risk that young children are still being exploited and groomed by drug gangs.

“When children are in school they are in a protected and supervised environment making it less likely to be targeted by gangs looking to recruit them.

“For some children who may struggle with being at home they could potentially go missing, wander the streets and become vulnerable to the gangs who prey on them.

“It’s important the public look out for children who are alone, or with a group of older teenagers or men, perhaps in public spaces or using transport; as they could be in danger.”

It is feared that those teenagers finding home schooling difficult are more likely to visit parks, supermarkets and online environments such as gaming and social media platforms.

This could leave them more exposed to being groomed by gangs looking to recruit them as drug runners, say police.

The gangs are part of a network known as ‘county lines’ who travel from cities such as Manchester and Liverpool into rural towns to supply drugs to users.

They are known to befriend youngsters by initially giving them money and expensive items but then often demand they run drug errands in return, which can lead to threats or violence.

You can help by spotting the signs below:

• Repeatedly going missing from school or home and being found in other areas
• Having money, new clothes or electronic devices and they can’t explain how they paid for them
• Getting high numbers of texts or phone call and being secretive about who they’re speaking to
• Decline in school or work performance
• Significant changes in emotional or physical well-being
• Hanging around in parks, supermarkets, using public transport or online games and social media platforms

David Keane, Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire, said: “Protecting Cheshire residents from serious and organised crime, including young people at risk of being exploited, continues to be one of my key priorities.

“I’ve been pleased to see an increased number of dedicated community police officers and PCSOs visiting schools prior to them closing to warn young people of the dangers of county lines drug activity.

“This work is an example of why it’s important we have a truly local police service which engages with vulnerable residents to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour.

“While the current lockdown restrictions remain, officers will continue to work with partners to raise awareness to help protect vulnerable children who may be at risk of drug gangs but we must all play our part in recognising what signs to look out for.”

If you believe a child is being exploited please contact Cheshire Police on 101 or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

(Library image for display only – by Kelvyn Skee, creative commons licence)

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