- Specialist caseworkers, many with lived experience, help engage young people
- Analysis shows many are diverted from criminality, while agencies report huge savings
Young people being exploited by county lines gangs in Kent are being helped by a project offering specialist casework support.
The service is delivered by St Giles Trust, a charity that provides intensive help programmes for young people affected by gang-related violence and exploitation.
County lines is a term used when drug gangs from larger cities expand their operations to smaller towns, exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs.
The Kent County Lines project was initially launched as a six-month pilot in September 2017 with Home Office funding in response to the growing concerns around criminal exploitation in the county. The charity was expecting to deliver casework support to young Londoners travelling to Kent to sell drugs.
Instead, the pilot revealed gangs were changing their tactics with 85 per cent of the referrals being local young people who had been recruited into county line activity.
"Very quickly we had a caseload of Kent kids who had all been effectively groomed by London gangs," says Evan Jones, St Giles' child criminal exploitation lead.
"We had to go back to the Home Office and ask for an extension of the funding because we couldn't pull out - there was no obvious place to refer them to."
One of the key things that defined the referrals was that the young people were not engaging well with what was previously offered, explains Jones.
"But our workers came from a charity, were non-enforcement and had lived experience, so they very quickly built up good relationships with these young people," he adds.
Jones says the charity's casework support delivered in Margate and Thanet helped local agencies to engage with the young people referred to the project.
"We found that the trust we built up was transferrable so maybe initially the young person wouldn't talk to a youth offending team worker, but after a bit they realised our worker trusted them and it transferred from there," he says.
The model used for the pilot involved specialist casework, phone support provided by Missing People's SafeCall service and volunteer peer advisers.
The initial pilot involved £300,000 being awarded to both St Giles Trust and Missing People to cover one year.
Earlier this year, the project was awarded £800,000 from the Home Office and Kent's police and crime commissioner to fund it until 2022, and Jones says this has allowed the project to train local people with lived experience as peer advisers in both east and west Kent.
These volunteers will support specialist caseworkers and take on small numbers of cases themselves or those where young people's needs are less acute, he says.
Young people referred to the project often come from single parent households, according to Jones. "These kids usually have a working mum who is not around that much and they often have an absent dad," he says.
"We find 10 to 15 per cent of young people, across all our county lines projects, are from materially quite affluent backgrounds."
Trying to bring about an "attitudinal change" among those referred is the first step to helping them to leave gang activity.
"Some still think they are on the bottom rung of a great career in drug dealing," says Jones. "If they refuse help, we work with the parents and local professionals rather than just close the case."
Jones says traumatic events such as a stabbing or witnessing violence can jolt young people to their senses. He adds: "They frantically ring us up and if we move quickly, we get a window to help them."
An evaluation of the pilot, which ran for 12 months from September 2017, showed 38 young people and their families were given one-to-one casework support.
Of the 35 young people remaining on the caseload in September 2018, 85 per cent had positive outcomes, including 11 who had successfully exited county lines activity. A further 19 young people were at decreased risk and in the process of leaving gang activity.
Five of the group re-engaged with education, including some who went on to achieve GCSEs, and three young people secured employment.
Seven young people and 20 family members were supported through SafeCall phone services, and nine people with lived experience of gangs or county lines trained as peer advisers.
Kent Police says more than £270,000 in police time alone was saved through a reduction in missing children episodes. In Dover, this fell from 123 to 49 in four months and in Thanet from 16 per month to just five.
This does not take into account other potential savings in terms of court time, youth offending teams and other agencies.