The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was a landmark piece of legislation that established the UK as a world leader in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation. It is the first piece of legislation to formally define slavery, servitude and forced labour as serious criminal offences worthy of substantial sentences. However, new legislation also brings new challenges to those who have to implement it. The Haughey review of the modern slavery act in 2016 highlighted these challenges and some of the difficulties encountered by investigators, prosecutors and safeguarding professionals. These problems became especially tricky in relation to children that were being recruited by criminal gangs to commit crimes on their behalf such as petty street crime, begging, cannabis cultivation and drug dealing.
Law enforcement investigators found they were struggling to properly identify and present evidence “exploitation”. Social workers concerned with safeguarding children and young people are having similar difficulties and found insufficient assistance in their statutory guidance. Despite the fact that no prosecution principles exist in European Union law and Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, victims of criminal exploitation have continued to be prosecuted for crimes they have been forced to commit, thus failing to identify the real criminals and leaving these, and other children, vulnerable to further victimisation.
At present, County lines drug dealing attracts growing media attention reflecting social and political concern because it is a method of drug dealing that has at its core the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults. The scourge of County lines is not the only route by which children are forced to commit crimes by Organised Criminal Crime Groups (OCG’s) or even individual criminal exploiters. Patterns of child criminal exploitation emerged from complex relationships and interactions between different individuals, groups and their environments.
Because of this, child criminal exploitation has defied any tidy definition and professionals at the front line have been frustrated by a lack of knowledge about the phenomenon, unhelpful simplistic guidance and flow-chart protocols that did not reflect the complexity and diversity of the problem and its variation from region to region.
The Wilberforce Institute, at the University of Hull, recognised the problem and provided PhD scholarships for researchers to investigate the problem and develop new knowledge and insights to inform policy and practice in this difficult area. One of the scholars was Craig Barlow, a social worker and criminologist with 30 years of safeguarding experience as well as experience assisting in the successful prosecution of more than 25 traffickers of human beings since 2014.
Research began in 2016. At this time awareness of the County lines phenomenon was just beginning to emerge. The research was finished in October 2019 by which time the estimated number of County lines operations throughout the UK have quadrupled. The aim was to contribute to the field of knowledge that would have a useful, practical application in both the safeguarding and criminal justice arenas. To achieve this, critical feedback was sought from not only academics from different disciplines but social work practitioners, lawyers and police investigators who were engaged in tackling child trafficking in both the domestic and international contexts.
Gradually a theoretical model emerged that was able to explain and describe the complexity of child criminal exploitation (and other patterns of modern slavery) in a very simple and accessible way. The model was tested through mixed agency focus groups and refined with the help of the professionals who participated and feedback from other academics.
As a result of their participation in the focus groups, some professionals immediately began to apply the theoretical model to their own casework. They reported using it to identify and organise evidence and observations, as a framework for investigation, assessment and structured professional judgement and decision making.
The model has provided much-needed theory to inform continuing professional development training courses and is receiving growing interest from local authority child safeguarding departments who are reviewing and developing their child exploitation risk assessment protocols. As a result of his research Craig is a respected expert witness to the criminal courts. He has assisted in the successful defence and acquittal of a growing number of victims of criminal exploitation using his model to identify, analyse and present evidence for trafficking and criminal exploitation. He has also assisted the family Courts by providing complex modern slavery assessments.
He continues to work with the Wilberforce Institute and the University of Hull contributing to its research efforts in the field of modern slavery and development of services and information to support and assist professionals and organisations that work towards the eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking.