Tackling Child Criminal Exploitation together

In November 2019, delegates and speakers from across a wide range of agencies came together for a conference that looked at child criminal exploitation and serious and organsied crime in Scotland. Donna McEwan shares the key messages and calls to action that emerged from this day.

There was a theme running through every workshop and presentation at the Child Criminal Exploitation and Serious and Organised Crime Event on November 28 (2019) that came through loud and clear – child criminal exploitation is child abuse, it is everyone’s responsibility to address and we cannot tackle it alone.

Sound familiar? I am thinking GIRFEC, Child Protection and UNCRC, as well as the fact everyone accepts that to improve outcomes for our children, we need to work together. Therefore, criminally exploited children need to be understood and responded to as children first through the lens of GIRFEC as opposed to criminalisation. So I ask, whilst there is no agreed definition of child criminal exploitation, which many advocate, should child exploitation be wide enough to consider all forms of child exploitation and break down the walls between deserving and non-deserving rather than a specific definition of CCE? Kilbrandon stated some 50 years ago a child should be responded to for their needs not their deeds so, where does this leave those being criminally exploited today?

In her welcome address, Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, powerfully exposed the need for us to look beyond the label of offender for children and recognise that behind some behaviours and offences are organised networks, in some cases serious and organised crime (SOC) networks, which are manipulating these children to behave in a certain manner. This position was borne out from the evidence of the Greentown Study presented by Dr Catherine Naughton from the University of Limerick which recognised specific types of offending by children as being more likely to be directed by organised network such as housebreaking and drug dealing. Importantly this research highlighted the push and pull factors which are likely to influence children and increase their vulnerability to such exploitation. It also illuminated the power of relationships in creating the opportunities to and foundations from which children can be pulled into such criminal behaviour and exploited.

I eagerly await the learning from the practical application of the Greentown and replica studies, which are providing food for thought from a Scottish perspective as to what similarities and differences there are and the factors we can look for to assist in identifying child criminal exploitation.

Thanks to our chair David Harvie, Crown Agent, and speaker Chief Superintendent David Duncan, I reflected on the complexity of the respective roles of agencies in tackling CCE, and highlighted the need for good collaborative working. Whilst police have a critical role in detecting, disrupting, deterring and diverting serious and organised crime in Scotland they are often the first opportunity to highlight and recognise an individual as being criminally exploited. Police are able to assist in understanding how these organised networks operate and the targeting of vulnerable children and adults through coercive and violent behaviour primarily for financial gain. There is a myth that this exploitation is actually providing opportunities for some when there are none, and it is done for the greater good of communities; this is a dangerous fallacy. Organised networks, some of which will be SOC groups (SOC), are not altruistic and are exploiting children for their own gains. Traditional justice agencies such as police and crown office and procurator fiscal services (COPFS) have a difficult balance to find in upholding the law whilst being faced with children that do not see themselves as exploited and may appear to be choosing to be involved in offending at times of an extremely serious nature. Examples of this type of criminal exploitation have included violence, holding and threatening others with firearms, involvement in moving and delivering drugs as well as vehicle thefts. Child criminal exploitation takes many guises and whilst the higher profile behaviours I have mentioned are evidenced, it also exists on a less obvious scale not necessarily connected to SOC groups, but may link to small groups or single adults exploiting children. These apparently lower level behaviours may include stealing lead from roofs, thefts/shoplifting to order, using their bank accounts to launder money or selling counterfeit goods and housebreaking. The consequences are very real and will often include criminal records and involvement in the justice system from which it can be difficult to extricate someone and they may also face deeper involvement in these organised networks, perhaps being used to coerce and pull other children into the network. This latter statement raises the question of the victim or perpetrator paradigm; however, research tells us that often children involved or at risk of offending behaviour are our most traumatised and vulnerable, thus this is more appropriately understood as two sides of the same coin.

A critical factor is the recognition that we are responding to these children often through a criminal justice lens of arrest and prosecution yet we don’t have the answer as to how we can shift this lens particularly where the offences some children are involved in will involve serious harm. Colleagues from the Home Office highlighted experiences in England where younger children are being used to traffic drugs as those exploiting them understand that they can use a legal defence to avoid prosecution due to age and they are then very quickly available to be exploited further by organised networks. How confident are we that this is not being replicated in Scotland or is it that we just do not know or recognise it yet? This reinforces the attraction for the deliberate criminal exploitation of children and provides added complexity for how agencies and services work together to address and close down these loopholes, and bring those that exploit children out of the shadows and into the frontline.

I agree with the Minister for Children and Young People that child criminal exploitation is a child protection issue and everybody’s responsibility to address. By responding to these children as “young offenders”, we fail to hold those exploiting them to account but instead locate the issue within the child. We need to be curious about what is happening for these children, to look beyond the offence just as we have to look beyond presenting behaviour to understand what is really going on. Irrespective of the fact that children will often not see themselves as being criminally exploited, it is the responsibility of adults and the surrounding services to take action to deter the criminal exploitation of our children and ensure those that act in this way are identified and prosecuted. It is only by working together that CCE will be identified and challenged, that a response, which does not criminalise children, yet effectively responds to concerns where there are risks of harm from aspects of their behaviour and creates opportunities for them, will be achieved.

About our blogger

Donna McEwan is Practice Development Advisor at CYCJ. Find out more.

Pictured: Scotland’s Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd MSP with David Harvie, Crown Agent (COPFS).

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