Published: 06:00, 11 July 2019
| Updated: 07:13, 11 July 2019
More than 50 children with learning difficulties were groomed by gangs in Kent last year.
The figure for children with an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) suspected of gang involvement has shot up by around five times in two years, a KentOnline investigation has revealed.
Last year there were between 54 and 57 under 18s who were believed to have been sucked into a criminal lifestyle compared to between 11 and 15 in 2016.
County lines drug dealing - London gangs moving their trade in class A outside of the capital - has seen a surge in young people becoming involved in crime in the county.
Knife crime in Kent has increased by a faster rate than anywhere else in the country.
Figures for those at risk of radicalisation were far lower - at between zero and four in 2016 compared to between two and eight for the two years since.
These are children who have suspected involvement with extremist organisations, which could include banned terrorist groups like Neo-Nazi National Action or Islamic State.
EHCPs are drawn up for youngters whose needs can not be met in mainstream schools.
Children with EHCPs could suffer from conditions which impact their learning, like autism, or have physical difficulties.
Kent County Council and Medway Council were asked for figures but could only provide an exact number if it was over four, in Medway the number of children suspected of gang involvement or at risk of radicalisation didn't exceed four at any point in the last three years.
"Young people involved in gangs and county lines drug dealing are often coerced into taking huge risks, and can face serious punishments and repercussions if caught" - NSPCC
Director of integrated children’s services at Kent County Council Stuart Collins said: "While any child could potentially fall victim to gangs and criminal exploitation, many gang members are themselves vulnerable children who are more likely to be affected by a number of factors such as violence within the home, neglect, housing instability or problems at school.
"They are also more likely to have a mental health difficulty or have special educational needs.
“The challenge of protecting Kent’s most vulnerable children is not something KCC or any other agency can do in isolation.
"The Wood Review recognised and highlighted the fact that partnership working is the key driver to reducing risk, which is why the new Safeguarding Partnership Arrangements have been developed to include local authorities, police and the NHS to both better understand the root causes of the problem, protect children at risk of exploitation and take enforcement action against the criminal gangs operating within the county.
“KCC is also currently leading on a two-year project funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to reduce the impact of gang activity in north Kent and Medway and protect children at risk of criminal exploitation.
“The initiative, funded by a grant from the Government’s Supporting Families Against Youth Crime Fund, is delivering more resources for police and social services, peer mentors for young people at risk and additional training for staff on the risks of child criminal exploitation.”
In May the BBC's Newsnight revealed gangs were preying on teenagers in semi-supported accommodation, with the number of over 16s dumped in the unregulated blocks surging by 70% in the last decade.
There are around 5,000 looked-after children living in the homes, which are not regulated by Ofsted and are seen as an easy target for recruitment.
An increasing number of exclusions from main stream schools has also been linked to the problem.
In Medway alone the figure for children being kicked out of secondary school stood at 2,219, a rise of 22% since 2013 and the equivalent of 12 pupils out of every 100.
And with parents waiting two years for the results of learning disorder tests, during which period they are often excluded multiple times, a steady stream of vulnerable children are finding themselves outside of the education system and at increased risk of grooming at a very early age.
An NSPCC spokesman said “We all play an essential role in protecting children from exploitation and violence.
"Young people involved in gangs and county lines drug dealing are often coerced into taking huge risks, and can face serious punishments and repercussions if caught.
“We must be clear that young people who are criminally exploited are victims and need access to appropriate support to ensure their safety. Anyone worried about a child’s welfare can call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
“We know that children in this situation are often too scared to seek the help they need. Childline is there for them 24/7 for support and advice.”