CHILDREN have never been more likely to have their lives impacted by gang culture than they are now.

That is the grim reality for youngsters across the county at risk of becoming embroiled in exploitative county line and drug dealing operations.

Latest figures from social services in Essex show of the 10,938 children assessed in 2018/19 - 369 were deemed to be either already in a gang, at risk of joining one, or at risk of violence from a gang.

The number was up from 244 cases the year before, and nearly four times as many as the 98 cases seen in 2014/15, when the figures were published for the first time.

Those children under the protection from Essex County Council at risk from gangs increased from 79 cases in 2016/17 to 164 in 2018/19, a rise of 107 per cent.

The rise outstrips that of the average in England which saw a 66 per cent increase.

Essex County Council has outlined the issue as a priority.

The authority handed £640,000 to the Police, Crime and Fire Commissioner’s Office to further expand this multi-agency work to tackle the issue last year.

And their People and Families Policy and Scrutiny committee has set up a task and finish group to look at a multi-agency strategy of how the issues of drug gangs, knife crime and county lines can be tackled.

A full report of recommendations are due early next year, but group chairman Carlo Guglielmi and colleagues have been working hard to understand the issue.

At a committee meeting last week he said youngsters should be taught about the dangers of gang lifestyles when they are still in primary school.

“A great deal of our time in discussions has been about how primary schools should be engaging in this,” he said.

“There are certain schools quite reluctant to get involved – in affluent areas where social problems aren’t such an issue.

“We are very aware of the need to get involved at a very early stage.

“Children are barely children at seven or eight but unfortunately they can be led by older children to become perpetrators.

“It is horrendous.

“There are so many organisations that provide different services – the fact is we are concerned that primary schools are not engaging – whether they don’t want to, are pushed for time, who don’t have the resources.

“There are huge amount of organisations happy to give assemblies free of charge.

“We should engage earlier on.”

Mr Guglielmi said religious groups were also keen to help prevent children travelling down the wrong path - including the Bishop of Colchester.

He said the dedicated task and finish group could run longer than usual to keep abreast of the ever evolving problem.

“It is a new issue but a very big issue,” he said.

Essex is one of the top destinations for young drug dealers involved in London county lines gangs, new figures have shown.

A report from City Hall in London, which details the reach and type of county lines activity going on in the capital, shows that between January 2018 and April 2019, 43 people involved in their rescue and response programme had links to Colchester.