County lines gangs are using increasing levels of violence to exploit boys and girls, including removing their fingernails, frontline medical staff report.
Hospital staff have told researchers that they were now treating victims of county lines violence who had suffered multiple injuries, where before they may only have been admitted with one or two.
These included fingernails being pulled out, hair being ripped off their heads and multiple stab wounds, according to the report by Nottingham University’s Rights Lab based on interviews with frontline workers.
“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,” said one youth worker based in hospital accident and emergency departments.
There was also evidence of gangs using sexual violence to exert control. Youth workers described the use of “gift girls” where victims are sexually exploited and passed around the wider gang network as a reward.
Another hospital youth worker reported a rise in the number of young men aged 21 or under attending A&E who had been raped by members of county lines gangs.
The researchers said the increasing violence was linked to a rise in the number of young people linked to the gangs who were self-harming or had attempted suicide.
One frontline worker told the researchers of one youth heavily involved in county lines who was in hospital for trying to drink a litre of bleach after he refused to join the other members in a gang rape.
“When he refused to get involved they beat him up and now they were after him because he wouldn't get involved in that gang rape,” said the worker.
Young women were particularly vulnerable to online grooming, where they were coerced into taking and sharing explicit images of themselves.
The researchers said it was unclear whether this was linked to sexual or criminal exploitation, but they attributed rising cases of self-harm in young women to the phenomenon.
One youth worker said “pop-up brothels” were being operated by the gangs, a trend that they had not seen before the Covid-19 pandemic. The victims, he said, were usually young British girls.
Dr Ben Brewster, Nottingham University Research Fellow said the findings were “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,” he said.