Children as young as six are being used by gangs to deal drugs, a police chief has warned.
Victims are taken from their own area to other towns to commit crime away from home to help avoid detection.
Det Ch Insp Wendy Tinkler of Cleveland Police, told councillors in Stockton, Teesside, that a current inquiry involved a six-year-old child.
Children excluded from mainstream schools and those with disabilities were the likeliest targets, she said.
She also told the Safer Stockton Partnership meeting that victims were often bribed with money or presents or threatened with violence, the Local Democracy Reporting Service, said.
Children with multiple phones, unexplained injuries or money should also set alarm bells ringing, she said.
"More often that not, because of their ages, there is no criminal investigation or progression to court", she continued.
"And the perpetrator moves on to the next child - they are a commodity and disposable."
Ms Tinkler also told the meeting that a change of attitude was needed by those in authority to tackle the problem.
"Some of these children are difficult children. They persistently go missing from home and they will probably engage in anti-social behaviour and be highlighted on a regular basis to the police.
"What we've got to understand is we can't get that tunnel vision that these children have made a choice to do what they're doing - they're being exploited."