“During lockdown I didn’t want to be at home. I was always fighting with my parents. I went out all the time to avoid them. I was bored and lonely.”
The words of 14-year-old Alisha (name changed to protect identity) from Staffordshire might sound familiar to teenagers across the country who have grappled with successive coronavirus lockdowns throughout the past year.
But for Alisha, the restrictions and her subsequent deteriorating mental health forced her down a darker path. Within months, she was being exploited by a local county lines gang.
A new report shared exclusively with Sky News says young people like Alisha are at risk of exploitation from criminals more than ever, as the country marks a year since the first national lockdown.
Despite headlines of the successes gained by the police fighting gang activity in 2020 – arrests up, and more than 100 lines closed down in September alone – the National Youth Agency says county lines child criminal exploitation is taking on new meaning, thanks to changing trends seen through the pandemic.
They point to gangs increasingly targeting vulnerable young people where they live; increased and more creative use of social media platforms to groom young people stuck at home during lockdown, and a lack of sufficient support in more rural areas for children to seek help.
They also highlight the changing profile of a typical victim – more affluent, more female – and many youth workers also report victims getting increasingly younger.