A VITAL campaign has switched focus to directly helping children being exploited by ruthless out-of-town drug gangs.

Southend Council, Essex Police and the Echo have teamed up for the third stage of the ongoing fight against drug gangs coming in from outside the county.

Southend Standard:

Children's boss - Anne Jones

Southend Standard:

Launched - The new campaign

A powerful new video and online help, via a specially protected website, are the cornerstones of the latest phase of the campaign.

Over the past year, the Echo has revealed how Southend’s children are regularly being targeted and forced to move drugs and money around the borough and up to, and back from, London.

Schoolchildren are being forced to deal class A drugs by these ruthless gangs.

As part of the latest stage of the campaign, a powerful video will be shown at The Odeon cinema and various social media platforms.

It focuses on children being groomed by criminal gangs, who then force them to sell the drugs outside schools and around town.

It shows children how quickly these new “friends” can turn very nasty - and provides reassurance and support to anyone who has any information to help nail them.

This latest campaign phase looks to give young people support and confidence to share information they need to pass on.

Children will be able to tell the council and police any details they would like to, completely anonymously, via a website that won’t track their IP or any other information, called “See the Signs”.

All information received will then be followed up by highly experienced professionals in the Children’s Services team at the council.

Councillor Martin Terry, cabinet member for community safety at Southend Council, said: “In Southend we see more of this activity than some other places in the UK due to our good transport links to London.

“Our children’s services team is dedicated to putting a stop to these harms with a holistic approach.

“These professionals work above and beyond their roles daily, to help children who are in the grips of these criminals, and to prevent children identified as being at risk of being groomed in the first place.

“This campaign offers our young people reliable information, support, and a place to anonymously report anything they may know, as much or as little as they would like to share with us.

“I’d urge anyone who knows anything about this activity to please use the website.

“We can help. We treat children as victims first, and just want to help get them out of these often violent and truly awful situations.

“You don’t need to leave your name, or any details, please tell us what you know so we can stop this happening to anyone else.”

This is the third in a series of campaigns designed to help tackle the national issue of “county lines”.

The first was created to inform parents of the signs to spot that their child could be being exploited by criminals.

The second, in the lead-up to the Christmas period last year, aimed to appeal to the consciences of recreational drug users and let them know their drug use directly resulted in local children being forced into county lines activity.

A National Crime Agency report in 2018 found large numbers of county lines cases linked to Essex, with Southend having 36 cases throughout the year, and Basildon having 30.

According to the report, the criminal networks exploit certain circumstances in a young person’s life, including poverty, family breakdown, exclusion from school, drug addiction and learning difficulties.

Councillor Anne Jones, cabinet member for children, added: “Children can worry about speaking to the police, social workers or other professionals, and live in fear as a result.

“But we have created this campaign to highlight how quickly these criminals turn, from seeming new friends, to people who trap young people in violent situations. Children can be forced to commit acts of violence themselves, which then makes it even more difficult for them to report their situation. With this campaign we are firmly offering help to children.

“We want to get you out of the grips of these criminals, so please go online and tell us anonymously anything you can.

“These criminals are not welcome in our borough, and we will not stop until we have protected all our children.”

Visit seethesigns.org.uk