Swanage safe haven scheme in fightback against drug gangs

Blue ‘S’ posters have begun appearing in shops and businesses throughout Swanage indicating safe places for children to go if they feel threatened, as drug dealing county lines gangs move into rural towns.

Local school children are being told about the scheme so if they see the poster, they know it’s a safe place to go and make a call for help to their parents or the police. County lines is the term used to describe urban gangs supplying drugs to other parts of the UK using dedicated mobile phone lines.

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South West charity Escapeline have been raising awareness in Swanage

Raising awareness of child exploitation

The scheme in Swanage is being co-ordinated by St Mark’s CoE Primary School after a visit by South West charity Escapeline, which helps to raise awareness of and prevent child exploitation.

It’s also supported by the Purbeck Youth and Community Foundation.

Rebecca Martin of St Mark’s CoE Primary School, pictured here outside the Co-op, is coordinating the Blue S scheme

Gangs target children as young as 8 years old

Rebecca Martin, of St Mark’s CoE Primary School, said:

“We had a visit from Escapeline, who talked to parents and children in years 5 and 6 in an age appropriate way about the situation, and asked if we could help with the scheme to set up safe places in Swanage where children can go if they feel threatened.

“We feel it is so important to raise awareness of this issue, as criminals are targeting children as young as eight, befriending them over a long period of time.

“With the help of our community, we are strengthening knowledge about child exploitation and allowing children to feel safe, knowing there is always a safe place where they can go.

“The Blue ‘S’ scheme gives children reassurance that there are places they can go away from people who may be threatening them or making them feel uncomfortable, to make a call to their parents or, in a worst case scenario, to the police.

“We have made a start and with the kind support of shops and businesses in Swanage, we would like to see blue ‘S’ posters everywhere.”

Pet Luv is one of the Swanage shops which has joined the scheme

Small rural towns ‘not immune’ from crime

Swanage firms who have so far joined the scheme include the Co-op, Swanage Taxis, Pet Luv and the Nationwide Building Society, and more posters are going out as word of mouth spreads.

All businesses which opt in will be contacted by charity officials to explain the part they have to play in the scheme, and what is expected of them.

A spokesperson for Escapeline said it was important that small rural towns like Dorset did not believe that they were immune from being affected by national crime trends.

St Marks School

St Mark’s CoE Primary School in Swanage hopes the Safe Place scheme will spread across town

Lisa, whose surname is being concealed for her protection, said:

“Exploitation is taking place in towns and villages across Dorset and the South West, irrespective of wealth or location, and children from all backgrounds are targeted – both boys and girls from the age of 10 upwards, possibly even younger.

“County lines have definitely increased post-Covid, more young people are being exploited and there has also been an increase in violence and knife crime, in small towns like Swanage as well as in large cities.

“No town or village is safe from the incursions of county lines; we want children to know there are safe places on the high street, open at all times of day and into the evening, where they can go and make a safe call to their parents or to the police if necessary.

“It is a fairly new scheme, but we have been told in other towns that children have been able to use these safe places to get away from those they believe are trying to recruit them or are threatening them.

“We provide knowledge, information and strategies to show how exploitation operates in rural and provincial communities, the signs to look out for and what to do if you suspect criminals are operating where you live or work.”

Escapeline

Escapeline highlights the warning signs in children who become victims of county lines gangs

Children targeted in parks or outside schools

Escapeline explained how the gangs work:

  • Perpetrators – possibly a stranger from out of the area, or maybe someone known to the child – target children in parks, outside schools and shops, and on social media.
  • They befriend potential victims and offer things for free such as sweets, cigarettes or cannabis, introduce them into a group and make them feel wanted.
  • They eventually ask the child to carry a package or look after some money, paying well for what seem like small favours or exciting work.
  • One day the child may be robbed, threatened or attacked; they turn to the group for support, but the support vanishes.
  • The group threaten the child who must now pay back the debt by delivering more drugs. The child is now enslaved and distanced from those who care about them.

Swanage Taxis, outside the railway station, has also joined the Safe Place scheme

County lines gangs exploit children

The county lines gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults in order to move and store drugs and money, often using coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.

Signs of criminal activity or grooming to look out for within the community include:

  • Lone children from outside the area
  • Individuals with multiple mobile phones, tablets or SIM cards
  • Unknown or suspicious looking characters coming and going from a neighbour’s house
  • Young people with more money, expensive clothing, or accessories than they can account for
Escapeline

Keeping the children safe – that’s the aim of Escapeline

Further information

  • More information and learning resources on child exploitation is available on Escapeline’s website

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