Our manifesto outlines “22 ways to build resilience and aspiration in people and communities” across five key areas. Download your copy.

Dismiss close

Child exploitationSubstance misuse

Catch22 responds to call for evidence from the Public Accounts Committee on reducing the harm from illegal drugs

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, taken from across the River Thames. Overlaid is text that reads: "Consultation Response".

Catch22 is a social business: a non-profit business driven by a social mission. For more than 200 years, we have worked across the UK to deliver better outcomes for young people and their families, wherever they face disadvantage.

Last year we worked with 110,000 people, through 1,600 staff and volunteers in over 100 locations. Catch22’s services for young people and families include vulnerable families and children in need, looked after children and care leavers, missing from home and child sexual/criminal exploitation, substance misuse, emotional wellbeing, and gangs and youth justice.

As a provider of young people’s substance misuse and child exploitation services, Catch22 wants to illuminate the areas where the strategy is failing to address barriers to accessing specialist young people’s substance misuse support, despite the additional funding, and how this is putting children at risk of exploitation.

About our Young People and Families services

We tackle a wide range of cross-cutting risks, harmful behaviours and challenges faced by young people and their families. Our service areas include child exploitation, missing from home, substance misuse, emotional well-being, crisis support and mediation. Across these services, the children and young people that we support at Catch22 will be receiving support from one or more other statutory and non-statutory services at any one time.

The benefit of delivering across a range of children and young people’s services is that our delivery teams can share insights and information across the organisation to improve responses and support. For example, identifying trends in young people’s substance misuse can help our caseworkers in our county lines and child exploitation services to identify new forms of risk-taking or dependent behaviour and refer them to specialist substance misuse support.

We deliver young people’s substance misuse services in Hampshire, Surrey and Merton. Last year (April 2022 to March 2023) we supported 1752 children and young people. In our Surrey Young Person’s Substance Misuse service, we deliver one-to-one support to young people and their families, a 24-hour helpline, counselling and access to pharmacological support – as part of a tailored recovery approach for young people aged 11 to 25 years old. We use a harm reduction approach to deliver one-off targeted support, as well as more specialist interventions for those who require longer-term support.

We deliver county lines, child exploitation and missing services across England, including the Home-Office-funded County Lines Support and Rescue service across London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Merseyside. We also deliver services in Merton, Derby City, Derbyshire, Kent, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and Surrey. Across these services we operate flexible, responsive and holistic needs-led support using trauma-informed, therapeutic interventions. Last year, our services touched the lives of 7,841 children and young people, of whom:

  • 2,056 received one-to-one support,
  • 97.6% reporting increased safety, and
  • 97.4% felt more able to make positive choices.

Executive summary

Catch22 has received additional grant funding as a result of the strategy in all three of our young people’s substance misuse services. The funding is welcome however this has not led to a substantial increase in referrals in spite of the aims of the strategy.

This is due to several barriers, including the delay in the delivery of outcomes frameworks, commissioning quality standards and workforce development initiatives, persistent recruitment challenges across the sector, the disproportionate focus on adult treatment, and not recognising young people’s specialist services in their own right.

Crucially, at Catch22 we are concerned that professionals are not identifying cannabis smoking as problematic, particularly when having to prioritise other risks and vulnerabilities, including mental health, child exploitation, and safeguarding, and are therefore not having conversations with children and young people about their substance misuse and the potential benefits of a referral to young people’s specialist support.

Children and young people do not understand the risks of smoking cannabis, or recognise that they may be using cannabis to manage negative thoughts and feelings. This puts children and young people at risk of developing ongoing problematic use, which could impact their ability to fulfil their potential, both short and long-term, depending on the harms caused by their dependent use of illegal drugs.

Catch22 proposes to address this issue and to make the strategy more effective, more funding must be invested in reducing harms via preventative work with children and young people; and training for professionals who work with children and young people.

Current barriers to reducing harm from illegal drugs to young people

In the strategy, the Government committed to making sure that 50% more young people receive specialist substance misuse interventions and an outcomes framework, commissioning quality standards and workforce development initiatives are developed within three years of publication.

In all three of our specialist young people’s substance misuse services, Catch22 has received additional funding which has been used to create new posts to offer specialist support alongside the main service. The type of additional specialist support required was identified in accordance with local needs and chosen with the strategic aims of the plan in mind. In Merton, this funded a worker for the 18-24 age group; in Surrey, we developed substance misuse link worker posts for probation, youth justice service and police child exploitation and missing units; and in Hampshire, we were able to increase the number of staff to meet demand.

Catch22 staff are concerned that the additional funding is not achieving the desired outcomes of the strategy. We have not seen a significant increase in the number of referrals, and therefore interventions delivered, across our services. This is due to myriad reasons:

  1. Across our services, we are yet to receive the promised outcomes frameworks, commissioning quality standards and workforce development initiatives. As a result, we are not able to offer new staff adequate professional development or accredited training to achieve the promised world-class treatment and attract the best people into the sector to make it their career.
  2. Recruitment challenges across the sector have persisted and this has meant that our services are often not operating at full capacity. If the Government had released the frameworks, standards and initiatives prior to/alongside directing funding towards services, the impact on outcomes could have been have been greater for young people’s treatment.
  3. Existing training that is available is for adult-based recovery and addiction – terminology and treatment that is not used in the young people’s substance misuse sector. Young people’s specific standards, frameworks and workforce development initiatives will substantially improve outcomes for young people, by acknowledging and appropriately addressing that young people’s use of substances and illegal drugs requires different support, language and treatment to adult services.
  4. The strategy has limited focus on the unique challenges to young people’s substance misuse. For example, Catch22 is concerned that there is a lack of attention given to the role of social media in how young people buy illegal drugs, and how that should be tackled. In our County Lines Support and Rescue service, children and young people have reported buying illegal drugs through the apps Telegram and Instagram. This needs to be addressed to effectively support young people.
  5. The strategy has not considered the role of the wider ecosystem in effectively identifying young people with problematic substance misuse and making appropriate referrals to specialist support services. While our services have increased capacity via the additional funding that has been provided, this hasn’t necessarily been utilised by wider professionals who might not be aware of the support available or know when a referral should be made. A proportion of the funding needs to be directed towards harm reduction and preventative work in schools and youth services, and to training professionals who work with children and young people, to raise awareness of the potential harms of using substances, particularly cannabis as this remains the most prevalent illicit drug used by young people. To support workers in identifying when substance misuse may be an issue, how to respond and communicate confidently and competently with young people around the area of drug and alcohol use, and to mitigate risk by sharing harm reduction guidance.

Across the local areas we deliver in, we see harm reduction work in schools as critical to achieving the Government’s targets, in particular, a shift in generational harm and working with those young people and families most at risk. We deliver Substance Misuse Prevention Training to frontline staff who work in schools, colleges and education centres within Hampshire to deliver age-appropriate drug and alcohol education to young people as part of a whole-school approach. We hope that this will improve the understanding of young people’s use of licit and illicit substances, will upskill staff in educational settings to be able to deliver PHSE sessions confidently, and increase their confidence in talking about substances with young people, which ultimately will increase access to our service for those young people who need us.

Barriers to treatment: the normalisation of cannabis smoking amongst children and young people

Caseworkers at Catch22 – in our substance misuse, child exploitation and county lines services – are concerned that there is a social normalisation of the use of cannabis amongst children and young people and/or professionals are not aware of the risks of cannabis smoking, including the associated risks of grooming, child exploitation and the exposure to other harmful illegal drugs. Across our services cannabis smoking is consistently the highest proportion of referrals – yet we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Caseworkers in Catch22’s national County Lines Support and Rescue service were asked to complete a survey about the use of illegal drugs by the Children and Young Adults (CYA) they support on their caseloads. Twelve Caseworkers completed the survey, with a caseload of 103 children and young adults between them.

  • 73% of children and young adults disclosed using illegal drugs to their Caseworker, while Caseworkers suspected more were using illegal drugs (85% of children and young adults) but were nervous to disclose the information to their Caseworker.
  • Caseworkers believed that all children and young adults who were using illegal drugs were either taking them weekly or daily.
  • Each Caseworker who responded to the survey listed the use of cannabis as ‘Very Common’. While cocaine use was on average ‘Less Common’, ketamine ‘Quite Common’ and nitrous oxide was ‘Quite Common’.
  • Of the 73 children and young adults who disclosed using illegal drugs to their Caseworker, only 1 in 5 of them were receiving specialist substance misuse support.

The data is concerning and confirms what we already know from across our services at Catch22. Children and young people who are affected by County Lines and other forms of Child Exploitation are likely to also smoke cannabis. The use of this illegal drug puts children and young people at risk of exploitation, and dependency on the drug can make the child or young person return to their exploiter. At the same time, we know that these children and young people are not receiving specialist substance misuse support for their dependent and/or problematic use of the drug. Caseworkers in our County Lines Support and Rescue service reported concerns that children and young adults don’t think they have a dependency on the drug or recognise if they are using it as a coping strategy to manage negative thoughts and feelings.

Beyond the risk of exploitation, the data supports what we at Catch22 believe: cannabis smoking is normalised – amongst professionals and the children and young people themselves – despite putting children and young people at risk of serious harm. Cannabis smoking is widespread, and preventative work and professional training need to take place so that the use of cannabis is taken seriously. This will:

  • increase the number of referrals of children and young people to specialist treatment as more professionals become aware of the risks,
  • prevent the long-term risk of illegal drug dependency/dependencies in adulthood, and
  • reduce the risk of grooming and exploitation.

When asked how the Children and Young Adults they support get the illegal drugs they use, our Caseworkers responded:

  • “To my knowledge, through their exploiter and via social media”
  • “Most of my young people will get cannabis and other substances from their peers, sometimes these are older peers who are possibly exploiting them. One of my young people state that they will get their drugs from Instagram or an app called Telegram. They will order them and someone will drop off to them within 24 hours. This young person also states he gets free pills from local drug dealers as he will “test new drugs out” for them. One of my female young people got drugs from the adult male she was groomed by. He took her to a hotel where drugs such as cannabis and alcohol were found in the room which he was believed to have given her.”
  • “My caseload appear to get their illegal drugs through social media and through their drug dealer who in the majority of cases is their previous or current exploiter.”
  • “Friends, through their exploiter, in local areas such as parks, education/providers (peers).”
  • “Most commonly through meeting people on social media, or a friend of a friend”
  • “Mainly through their dealer, sometimes friends as they often use social media to advertise their stock.”
  • “From local dealers that they know or from their friends.”

Final thoughts from Caseworkers in our County Lines Support and Rescue service at Catch22:

  • “There is a real issue with young people using substances to self-medicate. Overcoming this would go a long way in the battle against county lines.”
  • “Cannabis I feel is socially accepted and children and young people don’t see the risks associated to this. I also feel that gang culture is also common within my area, and grooming and exploitation is not fully understood as due to the grooming the exploitees, don’t feel groomed as they think that they are part of a “family” this is what some of these exploitees have craved for and the exploiters prey on this.”
  • “There is an increasing use of Diazepam being used amongst young people, which has not been prescribed to them.”
  • “One male I am working with has told me he used to have diazepam every other day before prison.”