Children exploited to work in the UK’s violent street drug trade often have “horrendous” life stories and are being failed by the authorities, according to new research.
A deep dive into the cases of 13 teenage boys involved in ‘county lines’ drug selling networks – where children are exploited to sell crack and heroin in locations far from home – found most of the boys' childhoods were scarred by severe trauma, domestic abuse, periods of going missing from their homes and living in local-authority care. This made them highly vulnerable and easily targeted by groomers for exploitation.
The major report, County Lines: Breaking the Cycle by criminal justice experts Crest Advisory, was overlooked after it was released on the day of Queen Elizabeth's death, but it provides the most in-depth analysis of individual county lines cases so far.
It was carried out by linking police records with local authority data and interviews with welfare staff. It identified missed opportunities to prevent children from being drawn into gangs and called for a new approach to tackle the problem.
The report said the Department for Education was guilty of “a systematic failure to protect criminally exploited vulnerable children from physical and mental abuse, including torture” because of its hands-off approach. The system for helping victims of modern slavery, the national referral mechanism (NRM) was letting children down by “placing them in limbo at their time of greatest vulnerability” due to “unacceptable drift and delay”.
It also called for an end to the practice of ‘exile’ – where children are placed in care a long way from where they live – and recommended young people who have been trafficked to deal drugs should be returned to their home area for a ‘crisis intervention’.
County lines drug networks – so called because they are centred around dealers’ phone lines and also cross the lines of counties in the UK – have been expanding out of major cities such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham and into smaller towns and cities across the UK over the last two decades.
Young people are sent out from their inner city neighbourhoods to sell drugs from the homes of local heroin users, overseen by older managers. They are paid but often work in grim conditions and suffer violence at the hands of their bosses, rival gangs and drug users.
County lines groups, a major target of the government’s 10-year anti-drug strategy, have been responsible for a rise in knife crime and gang culture in towns and cities across rural and coastal Britain such as in East Anglia, Home Counties and South West England, as dealing crews become increasingly embedded out of the big cities.
One of the boys featured in the report, given the pseudonym ‘John’ to protect his identity, was arrested with Class A drugs, two burner phones and cash when aged 15 in 2020. He first became known to social care services when he was less than a year old.
When he was five, he was taken from his mother and put in a care home following concerns about neglect, his mother’s drug use and exposure to domestic abuse. He lived in more than ten care homes in two years, most of which were unregistered and out of the area he had previously lived in.
When he was 14 he became a victim of modern slavery, and was found working in a trap house, where drugs are sold, 200 miles from home. Between the age of 12 and 15 he went missing 90 times and was arrested 20 times. He was also the victim of four assaults and had witnessed extreme violence including a rape.
“[He has] that sort of beacon, light flashing on his head, saying, ‘I am a child in care, please come and exploit me’,” a social worker noted. “[He] wanted to belong. He’s always the odd one out. He wants someone to say, ‘I’ve got your back’. No one ever did. That’s a really sad thing…He has nothing.”
Despite his arrest in 2020, John got more senior roles in county lines dealing. He was given responsibility over the deal line and was involved in incidents in which other young people were purposefully humiliated. Throughout 2021, John’s specialist exploitation worker described a decline in his mental health and that he had started using Xanax. She was concerned John would kill himself.
“The other day I picked him up. It’s really sad because he said to me, “if I die, will you come to my funeral? And will you support my mum and be there for my mum?” And I was like “Oh, well, who’s going to kill you?” And he said, “Well, it can happen any time.”
In spring 2021, John was stabbed. His social worker believed the attack was the result of a ‘drug deal gone wrong’. Later that summer, John witnessed his friend get stabbed in the stomach. “One of his mates was stabbed quite seriously in front of him. John held his stomach together until the ambulance came. I suppose the first time you see someone’s guts hanging out, I suppose it’s horrible. But, again, it’s normalised [to John]. At the beginning of 2022, John was arrested as the perpetrator of a stabbing.”
The report said: “Children who have experienced traumatic events or other serious problems which make them vulnerable have a higher probability of falling victim to child criminal exploitation in county lines. The records of the 13 young people in our sample, all of whom experienced trauma and other serious problems before their identifying incident, reveal a pattern of vulnerability which, if identified and responded to early, could have stopped them being exploited by county lines gangs or minimised the harm they suffered.”
Joe Caluori, one of the authors of the report, part of a body of research into county lines carried out by Crest, told VICE World News: “It's clear to me that our 13 boys led horrendous lives and there are many more like them. Vulnerability is relative. It might not always be recognisable, so services have to be better at spotting it. However, people need to know that the devolution of county lines is very real. Line operators are recruiting kids local to the dealing bases, and that will make genuine exploitation far to spot in the future. That's why we need to get our approach right now.”