VULNERABLE children being groomed by organised crime gangs in order to peddle drugs will be targeted as part of an anti-exploitation scheme in a bid to protect victims.

Barnsley Council’s ruling cabinet members approved its participation in a multi-agency initiative aimed at addressing child criminal exploitation in South Yorkshire on Monday.

The initiative has been funded by Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, through the Home Office’s Early Intervention Youth Fund due to rising numbers of exploitation cases, particularly affecting communities in the Dearne.

Protecting vulnerable children being targeted has become a priority due to Barnsley’s high number of looked-after children, of which there are an estimated 200 in the care system.

A report said: “Child criminal exploitation is an emerging theme in all areas of the UK and South Yorkshire is no different. There is a high number of organised crime groups (OCGs) and in the past five years Barnsley has experienced ‘county lines’ issues in relation to young people being targeted.

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“It is important that professionals start seeing young people who are involved in gangs as potential victims of exploitation or trafficking and that all young people under 18 and therefore considered children, are treated as such and are safeguarded by society.

“No single agency can tackle the problem of child criminal exploitation. It has to be a multi-agency, multi-faceted, coordinated response, drawing on the unique contributions of the key agencies and their staff.

“While enforcement and police disruption of gang activity are important it is recognised that education and the prevention of young people from becoming victims or perpetrators of criminal exploitation and serious violence needs to be enabled.”

A team - which includes forensic psychologists, police officers and youth workers - has been formed to both disrupt and effectively support young people who are being exploited or who may be at risk.

There will also be a crime and consequences education package developed for schools, while a progress report will be delivered next year to assess the scheme’s effectiveness.

The report added: “There is, currently, no local performance indicator and target concerning the percentage of young people who are experiencing or who are at risk of experiencing exploitation in the borough.

“However, the project will involve the development of a set of indicators at sub-regional level against which progress will be reported with the Safer Barnsley Partnership. A full evaluation of the project and its outcomes will be undertaken next year.”

Coun Margaret Bruff, cabinet spokesman for children’s services, said the partnership was ‘hugely important’ for at-risk children.

“We are committed to preventing any occurrences of child exploitation in Barnsley,” she added.

“We already do a lot of work to keep our young people safe from harm, including preventing them getting involved in criminal activity, and this partnership project will provide further support.

“County lines crime has been an issue and there’s been serious violence. One of the most important things we can collectively do is to tackle the causes and provide early help.

“It is a long-term challenge but this project is the catalyst to effectively dealing with the issues.”