Monday 12 August 2019

'Chicken shop' drug gangs recruit children with food, inquiry finds

Excluded pupils particularly vulnerable to grooming, youth select committee told

Criminal “chicken shop gangs” are recruiting children to deal drugs with the offer of free food, a parliamentary investigation has found.

So-called chicken shop grooming was described in written evidence submitted to the youth select committee, which is investigating the UK’s knife crime epidemic.

Young people with experience of the criminal justice system said children who had been excluded from school were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

“Some shared that their peers had been targeted by gangs outside of pupil referral units [PRUs], as well as outside sports centres,” the youth justice board of England and Wales reported in evidence.

“They also said that sometimes children are recruited through an offer of food (referred to as chicken shop gangs) and they felt that schools could do more to keep children in school as it could be a protective factor from gang involvement.”

Children’s charities confirmed the tactic was being used to lure children into a criminal lifestyle.
 Chicken and chips. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

The headteacher of a primary school in east London shared a YouTube video highlighting the dangers of chicken shop grooming, with children as young as seven being targeted. There are fears the technique is being used at takeaway restaurants in the area, including a local branch of McDonald’s.

A poster campaign targeting high school students, launched by London Grid for Learning (LGfL), a community of schools and local authorities in the capital, tells children: “There’s no such thing as free chicken! Friends of friends who buy you things often want something in return.”

LGfL’s online safety and safeguarding manager, Mark Bentley, said: “In terms of schools or parents who might think this wouldn’t happen in this leafy area, chicken shops are legion, and kids like to hit the chicken shop on the way home from school.

“It’s so easy for them to think, ‘oh, I can save a couple of quid’, and it’s easy to get sucked in.”

The Children’s Society said last month “county lines” drug gangs – which use young and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between cities and smaller towns – were recruiting children as young as seven, although those aged 14 to 17 were most at risk.

Natasha Chopra, the charity’s London disrupting exploitation programme manager, said she had been aware of chicken shop grooming since she started working in the sector in 2008.

She said cuts to youth services had led to more children spending time in places where they could be targeted.

“Young people tend to go to places like fast food chains of a cheaper cost. Young people may use certain fast food chains as a place to socialise,” she said.

“In terms of exploitation, these exploiters know that these young people are going to be at a vast range of fast food chains. That’s when the ‘targeted’ stage comes in, because exploiters will actually watch and observe the young people.

“They will watch and they will check and think, ‘OK this particular young person comes in at this time, they leave at this time. Why are they not going home?’ That’s the way it will start with a conversation like, ‘Hi, here’s some chicken or here’s some chips’ and that relationship can form quite easily.”

Chopra said the next phase of exploitation could involve a child being offered £20 to act as a lookout for a criminal gang before becoming “hooked” on the experience of having access to money, moving up the ranks and feeling part of a family.

Once involved in a gang, children are coerced into staying through threats towards family members and friends, or with videos of them performing sex acts or inserting drugs into their bodies, she said.

In January the National Crime Agency (NCA) warned as many as 10,000 children could be involved in county lines drug dealing, with profits estimated to total around £500m a year.

Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, said: “Barnardo’s raises awareness among night-time workers, including those that work at fast food outlets, to identify children who may be vulnerable and help them to understand how to keep them safe.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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