County lines gangsters 'rip out nails of children who work for them'

County lines gangsters rip out fingernails and tear out hair of children who work for them as young males are raped and females passed around as ‘gift girls’, researchers say

  • Hospital A&E staff warned of a rise in the number of injuries sustained by victims
  • Injuries included fingernails pulled off, hair torn out and multiple stab wounds
  • One worker reported an increase in males aged 21 or under who had been raped 
  • Young women in particular groomed online with use of ‘gift girls’ also mentioned

County lines gangsters rip out the fingernails and tear out the hair of children who work for them with young males raped and females passed around as ‘gift girls’, researchers have said.

Hospital A&E staff have warned of a rise in the number of injuries sustained by victims, according to a report from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab.

These injuries included fingernails being pulled off, hair torn out and multiple stab wounds, said one youth worker during an interview with researchers.

The health professional added: ‘Whereas before Covid-19 you may have seen one or two injuries on a young person, now they will be repeatedly stabbed. 

‘So we’re talking five, six times is kind of an average amount of stab wounds.’

The term county lines refers to the individual phone lines used by gangs to sell and distribute drugs.

The gangs, which are linked to increasing violence in provincial towns and shire counties, recruit children and teenagers to transport drugs from cities to the provinces.

Hospital A&E staff have warned of a rise in the number of injuries sustained by county lines gang victims, according to a report from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab (file photo)

One hospital worker reported an increase in the number of males aged 21 and under attending A&E in the south of England who had been raped by gang members.

Another employee said young women in particular were being groomed online and coerced into taking and sharing explicit images of themselves.

The use of ‘gift girls’ was also mentioned, referring to female victims being sexually exploited by gangs and passed around the wider network as a reward.

Dr Ben Brewster, who led the research, described the report as ‘extremely concerning’. 

He said: ‘These latest findings are extremely concerning – taken together with the fact that professionals’ ability to identify signs of exploitation and safeguard vulnerable young people are being hindered by Covid-19 restrictions, it is a very alarming picture.’

The research fellow added: ‘One area that has seen some positive outcomes, is the privacy afforded by visiting restrictions in hospitals has meant that some young people have felt safe enough to disclose the circumstances of their injuries and experiences of exploitation. 

The use of ‘gift girls’ was also mentioned in the report, referring to female victims being sexually exploited by gangs and passed around the wider network as a reward (file photo)

‘This is something that should be borne in mind when setting future policy and practice guidance.’

It follows police more than halving the number of county lines drug gangs after rounding up ringleaders at home during lockdown.

Last year, around 2,000 drug networks were active and at its peak between November 2019 and October 2020, up to 4,002 county lines existed.

But as of May this year, that figure was just 600.

Graham McNulty, of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: ‘We have turned the tide and put the pressure on them by tackling it from both ends of the chain.’

It follows police more than halving the number of county lines drug gangs after rounding up ringleaders at home during lockdown (file photo)

Figures earlier released in a National Crime Agency report showed more than 3,000 gangs were reported by police in 2019 – double the 1,500 of 2018.

It was also a four-fold increase since 2017 when there were 720 operations shipping heroin and crack cocaine from cities to provincial towns.

Despite a crackdown by forces, figures from the National County Lines Coordination Centre show 800 to 1,100 phone lines advertising drugs are active every month.

Gangs are recruiting an army of youngsters to replace those arrested for dealing, with the report warning that children as young as 11 are being intimidated into becoming ‘runners’.

And the number of young people being groomed to become money mules – so criminals can access their savings accounts – has shot up by 26 per cent since 2017.

The report warned: ‘Exploitation in county lines drugs supply remains the most frequently identified form of coerced criminality with children the vast majority of victims.’

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