CRIMINAL gangs are targeting vulnerable children in care, some as young as 12, in St Helens and then using them to sell drugs in areas dozens of mile away, a BBC News special report has shown.

The headline report on the 6pm BBC news saw a reporter accompanying Merseyside Police officers in St Helens on the search for a missing boy, who was discovered in North Wales with 20 grammes of crack cocaine and heroin.

It is part of the phenomenon known as county lines and police say they are struggling to deal with the scale of the problem, which the report suggested is affecting 10,000 children in towns and cities across the country.

Vulnerable youngsters in care are often being targeted and then sent 50 miles from home to deal drugs, added the report.

Searching for missing children is becoming a daily routine and there are increasing concerns they are being found in North Wales, with exploitation causing "nice kids" to become aggressive and out of control.

Senior figures in St Helens stress county lines is a national issue that goes way beyond the borough, however, the BBC's report shines a fresh light on a worrying problem that was reported on by the Star previously.

Last month Local Democracy Reporter Kenny Lomas revealed how a safeguarding team will be set up by St Helens Council to protect children at risk from sexual and criminal exploitation and other complex issues.

The council meeting heard children aged between 13 and 17 are known to children’s services as being at risk of child criminal exploitation, which is often referred to as county lines.

The council’s cabinet approved a raft of proposals around edge of care and complex safeguarding services, with the aim of reducing the number of children who go into care.

Following the BBC report Merseyside Police Detective Chief Inspector John Williams, said: "In recent years the criminal exploitation of children has been a growing issue around the UK.

"We are seeing more, and more, young people being taken advantage of by those involved in serious and organised crime and they are being groomed and exploited to sell drugs.

"The children are often drawn in through promises of money and friendship and then find themselves in a situation they can’t get themselves out of.

"The children will often go on to being controlled through the use of threats, violence and sexual abuse and are regularly forced to move into different areas within their own county, and also into other counties where they are forced to use dedicated mobile phone lines to supply drugs and commit other crime.

"The moving of young people between different areas has led to this type of exploitation being referred to as 'county lines'.

"We have a duty to protect children from this horrendous abuse and we are committed to doing everything we can to find those responsible and take positive action against those who are putting our young people in danger and potentially committing them to a lifetime of fear, abuse and criminality."

The BBC report said it was unclear how many children were being exploited in St Helens but that it is known that no one had been prosecuted for trafficking children in the town.

DCI Williams' statement added: "We cannot enforce our way of this problem, but working with our partners and our community, we will do our best to ensure that those who are responsible for this 'trafficking of young people and vulnerable adults' are identified and put behind bars.

"Alongside that we need to work together with partners including local authorities (Children’s Services), schools, youth offending teams, prisons, probation, public health organisations, British Transport Police and third sector organisations to educate our young people so they understand the issues and can better understand how they can be exploited.

"Merseyside Police is working together with the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit (NWROCU) and other forces to identify and disrupt active County Lines.

"As I’ve already said, enforcement is not going to solve the issue of county lines, we need a comprehensive partnership approach that looks at early intervention, education, and pathways out of this type of activity.

St Helens Council said it had worked with the BBC and the police to highlight the issue.

In a statement Councillor Jeanie Bell, cabinet member for community safety at St Helens Council, said: “As figures released earlier this week from the BBC show the issue of drug crime is moving from big cities into towns across the country causing the increase in county lines criminal behaviour.

“We worked with Merseyside Police, the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit and the BBC to help raise the profile of this issue and help people understand the complex situation that young people can find themselves in and how everyone can play a role in helping us to combat the exploitation of children by criminal gangs.

“In St Helens last year we increased our investment in children’s services and we have good partnership arrangements with organisations such as the police, our new multi-agency safeguarding arrangements have also been brought in to further enhance our collaborative working.

“The council and our partners agencies such as the police work closely together but powers to prevent this type of crime are limited and we rely heavily on community intelligence to break the chains of supply and protect our young people and those most at risk.

“We are working hard to tackle issues such as county lines but we need the investment from National Government to make that happen and a national strategy. The government needs to ensure all services are properly funded and resourced, the time for empty promises is over, we need a firm commitment to tackle this issue nationally with a strategy and funding to support the work.

“Inadequate funding across public services means tackling a complex issue such as county lines remains very challenging, but we are doing everything we can to protect young people and would encourage communities to help us by reporting any concerns.”

Last month the Star reported how the total number of children looked after by the authority stood at 472, as of March 31 of this year.

St Helens has also seen an increase in the number of children in need, from 1,567 children in 2017-2018 to 1,830 in 2018-19.

Levels of both looked-after children and children in needs are significantly higher than comparable regional, national and statistical neighbour averages.

The direct cost to the council of children in care in 2018-19 was £21.5 million, according to a cabinet report.

One of the proposals is to open an ‘Edge of Care Hub’, which will provide psychological support, along with support from the police, health workers and speech and language therapists.

A new residential unit that offers intensive residential and respite support to young people aged 12 years and over is also part of the plans.

Anyone with concerns about young people bring exploited can contact @MerPolCC, or you can contact the independent charity @CrimestoppersUK on 0800 555 111, or via the force website at"