County lines drug networks have been blamed for a huge spike in the number of children identified as having links to gangs, after the figure more than doubled in three years.
Social services in England carried out 8,650 assessments of young people whom they labelled as vulnerable with gangs highlighted as an issue in 2017-18.
It marked a significant jump on 2014-15, when 3,680 such cases were recorded.
A similar trend was found in the number of children who went missing during the same period - from 8,850 to 16,070 - which is considered a trait of county lines networks.
Drugs gangs increasingly recruit vulnerable children to ferry narcotics from cities to smaller towns, with around 2,000 operations believed to be operating across the UK.
The smuggling networks are known as "county lines". Academics and MPs described the figures, analysed by The Guardian, as “shocking”.
“There will be elements of that about increased reporting and awareness but that is not going to account for such a big rise - there is something happening,” Simon Harding, an associate professor of criminology at the University of West London, told the newspaper.
“Working in county lines has a great allure for young people. It gives them a tax-free income, gives them a regular income and high income”.
The Department for Education data showed a steady rise in the number of vulnerable children who go missing or become involved with gangs over the past few years.
Factors for a child disappearing are complex but can also include the absence of social services in the area, along with the work of drugs gangs.
Josie Allan, of Missing People UK, said: “I did research recently with a small group of young people involved in county lines, and everyone who took part said that going missing was a key feature, especially in the early stages of criminal exploitation.”
Another factor thought to be driving the trend of children being reported missing is a drop in the number of parents or teachers reporting them as “absent” instead.
Ann Coffey, the MP for Stockport and chair of the all-party Parliamentary committee on runaway and missing children and adults, told the newspaper: “What concerns me is that we are not really making inroads on arresting and taking those senior gang leaders out of county lines. As long as they continue to operate, the number of children exploited will continue to grow.”
A Government spokesman said: “Any child that goes missing from home, school or care could be in danger of exploitation from gangs or violent criminals – that’s why we are equipping the professionals who protect vulnerable children to help them identify those who are most at risk and keep them safe.
“Our national ‘tackling child exploitation’ support programme is helping specialists in education, social care, health, the police and the voluntary sector to improve how they respond to these kinds of threats in their communities, including gangs, county lines drug activity and trafficking, and our serious violence strategy includes a range of actions to combat county lines.”