Parents who have lost their jobs amid the UK’s lockdown and are struggling financially are at risk of being targeted by criminals, campaigners have warned.
Anti-violence community interest company, Operation Shutdown, said during the pandemic it has seen a sudden increase in disadvantaged people looking for help to avoid being exploited or sucked into criminal gangs in London. It comes after a report, published by children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, said there was a ‘real risk’ of gangs recruiting young people while school is out.
Ms Longfield said hundreds of thousands of young people cannot being monitored by ‘early warning systems’ such as schools and community centres, in the same way during this period. But it is not just children who are at an increased risk, said Operation Shutdown’s director, Lucy Martindale, who is concerned for vulnerable parents that are struggling to provide for their families.
Ms Martindale said: ‘I’m working with parents who’ve lost their jobs and don’t have enough to even give their children a slice of bread let alone feed themselves.
‘Some are living in cramped and overcrowded conditions sharing rooms with other people, while others have already come to me with fears their children will be groomed online because they can’t monitor them 24/7.’
She added: ‘What worries me is I know there is the potential for these single parents to be exploited or drawn into gangs, fraud and selling drugs, just so they can make ends meet during this time – these are tough times for a lot of people.’
The campaigner said many parents are also worried about their children being recruited into criminality to try and help their families with rent or put food on the table.
Ms Martindale, who was coerced into a gang in her early teens and beaten when she did not comply with their orders, said children as young as 14 have told her they were approached to take part in ‘deets and squares’.
Deets and squares is when a person hands over their bank details to fraudsters in exchange for money, making them accessories to the crime.
In a bid to better protect children during lockdown, the children’s commissioner’s report called for the Government to ensure councils and teachers stay in touch with those most vulnerable to exploitation and suffering the ‘toxic trio’ of domestic violence, substance misuse and mental illness at home.
Ms Martindale insisted that exploitation won’t stop ‘just because there is a virus’ and believes that social media apps need to recognise the part they play in facilitating crime among young people.
She said: ‘A lot of times people aren’t told the truth. They’re simply told they can make easy money and the plan is made to look harmless when it’s not.
‘Now with social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, there are now more ways to reach those who are vulnerable and I think it’s time these platforms also take some real responsibility.’
Over the weekend the government announced that it will allocate £76 million in funding to support victims of domestic and sexual abuse who are ‘trapped in nightmares’ across the country.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing on Saturday, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick pledged to give victims priority for housing to ‘ensure that no victim will have to stay somewhere unsafe or become homeless’.