Too many child victims of county lines drugs gangs are being treated as criminals by the police, a watchdog warns today.
Vulnerable children are being prosecuted despite 'clear evidence', in some cases, that they have been ensnared by gangsters to work in the violent drugs trade, it said.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services concluded: 'Too many children are being criminalised when they shouldn't be.'
A report by the watchdog said police forces are failing to use all available techniques to combat the exploitation of children by county lines gangs.
Surprise visit: Police force their way into a house in Liverpool during raids targeting suspected drug dealers
'The police have much more to do to protect children who are vulnerable in these circumstances,' it said. 'Too often, children are still likely to be prosecuted despite clear evidence of coercion. The police aren't yet using all the tools available to them to protect children who are forced to commit crime.
'As a consequence, children who are the victims of abuse and exploitation are routinely criminalised unnecessarily.'
The report comes amid growing concern over county lines gangs, which are linked to increasing violence in provincial towns and shire counties. They recruit children and teenagers to transport drugs from cities to the provinces. County lines crimes are named for the phone lines used to arrange drug deals.
In January Boris Johnson vowed to 'roll up' the gangs, whom he said were 'killing young kids' and damaging communities.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said police estimate 10,000 children may be involved in county lines gangs
The Prime Minister pledged to 'cut the head off the snake' as he takes charge of a new Cabinet committee on criminal justice.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said police estimate 10,000 children may be involved in county lines gangs. Some studies have said children as young as eight are being ensnared in gangs.
Today's report said: 'If a child is arrested or prosecuted it is much less likely that any safeguarding referral will be submitted.'
56 held in raids across North
Police have arrested 56 people for drugs offences in raids aimed at disrupting county lines gangs.
Five forces carried out 11 raids across the North and recovered 'significant' amounts of Class A drugs and cash, including £20,000 from one Liverpool address.
Thirty-six people were arrested on Merseyside, ten in Lancashire, two in Cumbria and five in Scotland.
Three were held at railway stations and on trains.
Police said five 'vulnerable young people' were being safeguarded after the raids.
The report – which looked at a range of child protection issues – also found that police and agencies such as social services are 'not proactive enough' in identifying children who could be at risk of abuse – not just from county lines gangs but from sex abuse, violence at home and other threats.
It also found flaws in the way some forces monitor paedophiles and other serious offenders after they are released from jail, which means that 'some sexual and violent offenders may not be receiving the scrutiny they deserve'.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, child protection spokesman for the National Police Chiefs' Council, said: 'We are alive to many of the issues in this report. We are already committing increasing resources to [protecting children].'
But he added: '[The report] correctly points out that the demands on the police service have increased at a time when our resources have fallen.
'We are dealing with a perfect storm of increased reports of non-recent abuse, ever growing online offences and the challenges of familial abuse.'