When a young woman is being exploited by gangs into criminal activity, and then faces criminal charges and a heavy custodial sentence for her own abuse, this needs to be recognised, challenged and put a stop to.
Abianda recently supported a successful referral to the ‘National Referral Mechanism’ to do just this. A young woman exploited by gangs into running county lines was identified as being a child in need, rather a criminal. The CPS dropped her case and she received the recognition and support she was entitled to.
This, of course, was a great outcome for this young woman, but a successful NRM referral brought new challenges and risk. Her profile changed from being a perceived ‘perpetrator’ to being a ‘victim’ of a crime. This means that there is now an offence of trafficking that has been committed against her which needs to be investigated by the police. The young woman is now a witness in that case.
The people who organise and carry out trafficking offences will have a vested interest in young women not giving evidence that will incriminate them. We have seen young women and their families being targeted and intimidated to prevent them from speaking in court. These threats are very real, and in the context of the fear and harm she has already experienced through county line activity, have a significant impact on her willingness to cooperate with the police, as she feels she cannot be kept safe.
So while the National Referral Mechanism is useful for young people under 18 in ensuing they are given a safeguarding response rather than a punitive one, there is a potentially dangerous outcomes for young women, which if not anticipated and planned for amongst the professionals who are supporting her, could mean that she and her family are left very vulnerable to further harm, intimidation and potential threat to life.
Introduced in 2009 to help identify and support ‘potential victims of trafficking’ and modern slavery, the National Referral Mechanism is a resource for us all to use. Yet the relevant professionals know little about it and trafficked children and adults continue to slip through the net. More thought needs to be given to the application of the process and its legacy in young women’s lives.
We will soon be launching a pan-London project called Rescue and Response. This is a partnership project between Abianda, St. Giles Trust, Safer London, and Brent, Islington, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets councils. We are really excited about this innovative project as it is focusing specifically on working with young people across London who are involved in or at risk of county line activity. The three-year project will provide fantastic learning on many of the issues and responses associated with county lines. Specifically it will allow us to really test and understand how the NRM can be most useful to vulnerable children and young people who are caught up in criminal exploitation.
Although the NRM comes with its own set of challenges and much more work is required, recognising the blurred lines between ‘victim' and 'perpetrator’ is a step in the right direction. We regularly pull on support from Just For Kids Law who do some fantastic work around this – check them out here.