CRIMINAL “chicken shop gangs” are recruiting kids to deal drugs with the offer of free food.
Gangs keep watch on school-age children who meet in fast food outlets during the daytime.
Once then accept free food, kids may be offered money to carry out tasks such as keeping a lookout and, once they agree, can be threatened if they refuse further requests.
The tactic – dubbed “chicken shop grooming” – was highlighted in evidence submitted to the Youth Select Committee as part of its investigation into the UK’s knife crime epidemic.
Young people with experience of the criminal justice system said kids who had been excluded from school were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
“Some shared that their peers had been targeted by gangs outside of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), as well as outside sports centres,” evidence from the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales said.
“They also said that sometimes children are recruited through an offer of food (referred to as chicken shop gangs) and they felt that schools could to do more to keep children in school as it could be a protective factor from gang involvement.”
Earlier this month Nyron Jean-Baptiste, 18, was jailed for life after he knifed 15-year-old Jay Hughes to death outside a chicken shop.
The court heard Jean-Baptiste had appeared in “gang videos on YouTube” and wrote violent drill rap lyrics before the killing.
CHICKEN SHOP GROOMING
Children’s charities confirmed the tactic is one of many used to lure children into the criminal lifestyle, while schoolchildren are being warned of the potential risk.
An east London primary school headteacher shared a YouTube video highlighting the dangers of chicken shop grooming with kids as young as seven amid fears the technique was being used at take-away restaurants in the area, including a local branch of McDonald’s.
A poster campaign targeting high school students launched by London Grid for Learning – a community of schools and local authorities in the capital – tells children: “There’s no such thing as free chicken! Friends of friends who buy you things often want something in return.”
LGfL online safety and safeguarding manager Mark Bentley said: “In terms of schools or parents who might think this wouldn’t happen in this leafy area, chicken shops are legion, and kids like to hit the chicken shop on the way home from school.
“It’s so easy for them to think, ‘oh, I can save a couple of quid’, and it’s easy to get sucked in.”
The Children’s Society last month warned kids as young as seven are being drawn into the brutal county lines drug trade.
The charity said gangs are ‘scouting’ for ‘naughty’ primary school children who are being persuaded to steal fruit as an initiation before going on to take drugs from big cities to customers in rural areas.
Natasha Chopra, the charity’s London disrupting exploitation programme manager, said she has been aware of chicken shop grooming since she started working in the sector in around 2008.
She explained cuts to youth services have led to more children spending time in places where they could be targeted.
“Young people tend to go to places like fast-food chains of a cheaper cost. Young people may use certain fast-food chains as a place to socialise,” she said.
“In terms of exploitation, these exploiters know that these young people are going to be at a vast range of fast-food chains.
“That’s when the ‘targeted’ stage comes in, because exploiters will actually watch and observe the young people.
“They will watch and they will check and think, ‘OK this particular young person comes in at this time, they leave at this time. Why are they not going home?’
“That’s the way it will start with a conversation like, ‘hi, here’s some chicken or here’s some chips’ and that relationship can form quite easily.”
Ms Chopra said the next phase of exploitation could involve a child being offered around £20 to act as a lookout for a criminal gang before becoming “hooked” on the experience of having access to money and feeling like they are part of a family or moving up the ranks.
Once involved in a gang, children are stopped from leaving with threats towards family members and friends, or with videos of them performing sex acts or inserting drugs into their bodies, she said.
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In January, the National Crime Agency warned as many as 10,000 children may be involved in “county lines” drug dealing, with profits estimated to total around £500 million a year.
The NCA, which jointly runs the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, estimated there were more than 1,500 county line gangs in operation in the UK, with annual profits for each in excess of £800,000.
A spokesman for the centre would not comment on the issue of chicken shop grooming but said: “We work to tackle grooming as a whole, in all its forms and guises.”
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