Meet the team behind GMP's first Modern Slavery convictions taking down County Lines gang
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As part of the United Nations' International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, we meet the team in Tameside who secured GMP's first 'county lines' convictions concerning the trafficking of vulnerable young people under the Modern Slavery Act.
The Complex Safeguarding Team, based in Ashton-under-Lyne, successfully proved last month that a gang of three men and one woman were not only supplying class A drugs to Blackpool, but were also trafficking vulnerable boys - as young as 13 - to deal the drugs after criminally exploiting the children (CCE).
The landmark CCE outcomes for Greater Manchester are part of a handful so far achieved across the country since the law on Modern Slavery was introduced in 2015, as specially-trained investigators prioritise the safeguarding of vulnerable people and target the offenders criminally exploiting them.
Our approach to county lines comprises of a multi-agency approach across each of the 10 districts of the Force-area; in Tameside, the team - formed in November 2019 - comprises of three specialist detectives, four safeguarding officers, and partners from Tameside Council.
Detective Sergeant Wayne Redford, of Tameside's Complex Safeguarding Team, said: "Our team was formed in Tameside - like all of the districts of Greater Manchester - with the focus on putting processes in place where we could identify risk to a child and work with partners to best engage with that child to try and conduct detailed investigations to disrupt and remove that risk of exploitation.
"It would be very easy to prosecute a 13- or 14-year-old in possession of bags of heroin and put them before the courts and refer them to the youth justice system, but that's not what we're doing; we're not criminalising them and instead we're trying to disrupt the structure above them by prosecuting those involved in the criminal exploitation of those children.
"Operation Fairview was an exemplary case where we looked beyond the street dealing and instead identified who was controlling the children, who was directing the children, and then made sure we worked closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure we had enough evidence to convict those responsible for the serious modern slavery offences.
"CCE is the biggest rise of exploitation and if you scratch the surface then you'll find it's present in most communities; adults utilising children has been present since the days of Oliver Twist, like in the case of Op Fairview where the exploiter sits back in Tameside waiting for the money to come in while the child is out in Blackpool taking that risk and serving up to drugs users - it's awful."
Detectives first looked into the Tameside drugs gang in April 2020 after one of the victims was reported as missing from home - a common theme of investigations involving potential CCE victims - before he was safely located in Blackpool after enquiries conducted by both GMP and Lancashire Police.
As DS Redford explains, this example of routine work between policing partners nationwide is vital to tackle of the scourge of county lines as the very nature of its offending sees criminals refuse to respect county borders: "We've got investigations that have involved Dundee, Hull, Chester, and Blackpool, and working with partners across the country is absolutely vital to gain a picture of the offending going on.
"To be aged 13 and 14 and travelling those distances to be concerned in that criminality presents massive risk , all partner agencies main focus is to locate and safeguard the child, and then utilising a joint approach with our partners to engage with them and ultimately safeguard them.
"During the Op Fairview investigation we made contact with the first detective to secure CCE Modern day slavery convictions for county lines - based in West Midlands Police. Understanding some of the investigative hurdles and methods they utilized in their presentation to CPS greatly assisted our own future approach to CPS."
Even after the conclusion of the Operation Fairview investigation in November, detectives in Tameside are still investigating nine other cases where children may have been criminally exploited by organised criminals.
To date, multiple children have been safeguarded by the Complex Safeguarding Team on the district with none currently wanting to pursue with a prosecution - including as part of Fairview.
The team have a clear pathway and will always seek to understand the criminality the child is identified for. Evidence led investigations or victimless prosecutions will always be considered to endeavour bringing any possible exploiter to justice where there is evidence of direction and control.
DS Redford continued: "Understandably with CCE, the child is involved in a criminal act and will therefore find it difficult to engage with the police and open up and understand that we are there to support them as they fear being prosecuted.
"The people exploiting the children are part of organised criminality and they therefore have their own reputations in their community which may naturally create the risk of fear, intimidation, and duress for the children who feel if they speak to the police they'll be classed as 'snitches' and 'grasses'.
"As the police, we do visit the children, but also ensure that our partners from relevant agencies within Tameside Council would be there and keep engaged with them to ensure they are signposted to help to move them away from the risky world that they're in, and encourage them to understand they are victims of exploitation.
"We will pursue any modern day slavery investigation on the basis of a victimless prosecution if we can find evidence that shows the children are being moved for the purpose of criminality."
Often, the most difficult part of investigations concerning the criminal exploitation of children is receiving the initial information from the public that suggests a child may be involved with members of the criminal fraternity.
Here, DS Redford explains the key signs to spot when a child is potentially being criminally exploited:
"The common signs for CCE are: time spent missing; a change in personality; a change in criminality if they've previously been known for anti-social behaviour, but are now carrying weapons; weapon-carrying is a sign in itself as it shows the child doesn’t want to become a victim of violence; additional phones, such as 'burner' phones, that are constantly ringing; different associates; unexplained wealth - whether it be new money, clothes or shoes.
"We encourage parents, carers, teachers - anyone involved with children - to feed these concerns to police, and from there the local Complex Safeguarding Team will use the multi-agency resources to put safeguarding measures in place to intervene early to make that child as unappealing to organised crime groups as possible."
If you have any concerns or information relating to the criminal exploitation of children, please report it to police online, if able, or via 101.
Details can also be passed to the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.