County lines gangs have been exploiting young women by passing them round dealers as “gift girls” as a reward for making profits, according to a new study seen by The Times.
Young women and girls have also been victims of online grooming and increasingly severe and sexual violence, the report from the University of Nottingham found.
Policing County Lines: Impact of Covid-19 was based on interviews with frontline services dealing with the impact of county lines drug dealing.
County lines refers to the use of a phone line in a city that acts as a call centre managing deliveries — usually of crack and heroin — to the surrounding counties. The exploitation of young and vulnerable people by the gangs has made the tactic a policing priority.
According to the report: “One youth worker referred to the use of ‘gift girls’, describing the sexual exploitation of females by county lines actors where victims are sexually exploited and passed around the wider network as a reward.”
Another told the report’s authors that “pop-up brothels” run by organised crime groups and using young British girls had emerged as a phenomenon during the pandemic.
“Online grooming featured consistently among those we spoke to, particularly involving females who were being coerced into taking and sharing explicit images of themselves,” the report went on. “While it was unclear whether this was linked to sexual or criminal exploitation, rising cases of self-harm in young females were attributed to this form of online activity.”
Young people were also being used to steal cars as the gangs moved away from using public transport. The study looked at hospital admissions and found an increase in the number of injuries treated in A&E as a result of road traffic accidents, police car chases and vehicles being used as weapons.
The report stated that injuries “sustained by female victims in relation to county lines activity were becoming more severe and sexual in nature”.
Another worker told the study that there had been an increase in the number of males aged 21 and under attending A&E in the south of the country who had been the victim of rape by heterosexual males in a gang context.
The injuries have also become worse in young men, with “fingernails pulled off, hair pulled out”, one source told the report, adding that young people being stabbed five or six times was “kind of an average amount”.