Children dealing drugs 'to provide for their families' in UK, report finds

Police officer says gangs view children as 'expendable foot soldiers – if one gets sent down or killed, there are plenty more to take their place'

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 01 October 2018 19:49 BST
Life as a teenage drug dealer

Children are dealing drugs for violent “county lines” gangs to provide for their families, a new report has found.

Research by the St Giles Trust found that youngsters as young as 12 were being drawn into the brutal trade for money, putting themselves at risk of being arrested by police or attacked by rival gangs.

“Although exploited children see only a tiny fraction of the money that is being generated through a county line, for a young teenager, being able to earn the £100 per day offered to some is highly attractive,” the report said.

“There are also examples of children from families living in poverty regarding the income that county lines can provide as a way of 'helping to provide for my family'.”

The research, which was commissioned by the Home Office, found children are being used to transport drugs from cities into more rural areas by gangs who control supplies through dedicated mobile phones or "lines".

More than 1,000 county lines are believed to exist across Britain and the phenomenon has caused British people to become the largest group of modern slaves identified by authorities.

But researchers said understanding remained “inconsistent” across different authorities, causing some children in extreme danger to be criminalised instead of helped.

Most of the teenagers involved were found to be from deprived backgrounds or in care, and excluded from school, although some were from “well-ordered and materially comfortable families”.

Researchers said the diversity was partly caused by gang leaders recruiting local drug mules and dealers to “blend in” with the target market, ranging from universities to homeless people, without attracting attention from police.

Teenagers involved in county lines dealing often take drugs, usually cannabis, themselves and rack up 'debts' later used to control them (Marco Di Lauro/Getty)
Teenagers involved in county lines dealing often take drugs, usually cannabis, themselves and rack up 'debts' later used to control them (Marco Di Lauro/Getty) (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Evan Jones, head of community services at the St Giles Trust, said some children were being “sent out to work” by parents who were drug users themselves.

“The ones now on county lines are the austerity generation – in 2008 they were in primary school,” he told The Independent.

“Some young people have bought into the idea that the only way they can make money is by dealing drugs, and I think the fact that is credible to them is a consequence of austerity.”

He said in some areas, drug dealers were doubling up as takeaway food couriers to disguise their illegal activity, and that gangs' tactics to avoid detection were “constantly warping”.

“An increase in county lines drug-dealing culminates in an increase in knife carrying, and that will turn into increased homicide,” Mr Jones warned.

“I think it's going to get worse before it gets better but we need a systematic approach at every level.”

The phenomenon has become a priority for authorities amid a rise in street stabbings and shootings and reports of both violence and drug usage increasing in small towns and rural areas.

One police officer told researchers that gangs viewed children as “expendable foot soldiers – if one gets sent down or killed, there are plenty more to take their place”.

The government's serious violence strategy named county lines among the drivers of increasing stabbings and shootings across England and Wales.

Between 2014/15 and 2016/17, homicides where either the victim or suspect were known to be involved in using or dealing drugs increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent.

A squeeze on police and local authorities is hampering the response
A squeeze on police and local authorities is hampering the response (PA)

There is no set protocol for responding to a child found working on county lines, meaning police officers must choose whether to arrest them, refer them to the national referral mechanism for modern slavery or let them go in each case.

The inconsistencies mean the scale of the problem, and the number of children involved is unknown.

Researchers said the squeeze on resources across police, local authorities and other services was also hampering the response.

One social worker said children who would have been given support a couple of years ago “no longer meet the threshold because we don’t have the funds to support them” and a police officer said youth services' outreach work had been withdrawn in their area because of funding.

There is additional concern authorities do not understand the “very serious level of risk facing children involved in and trying to exit county lines”.

Confiscating a child's stash of drugs for example, can cause them to be physically punished or put at greater risk by being forced to work off a “debt” to cover the loss. Or if they are released without charge by the police, they may be viewed as a snitch.

St Giles Trust called for housing, education and health authorities to take greater responsibility for protecting affected children.

It also called for British Transport Police officers to help identify more children using train, bus and coach services to carry drugs and money, who are frequently travelling without a ticket or at a time when they should be in school.

But researchers found the problem is ultimately being driven by the “continuing and growing demand for drugs”, with some contributors blaming reductions in addiction services and others calling for the government to consider forms of decriminalisation.

The Home Office has funded a pilot on responding to county lines dealing in Kent, which saved police more than £270,000 over six months.

St Giles Trust, which delivered specialist support in the project, said missing children episodes reduced dramatically and some teenagers stopped dealing and returned to education.

The report came weeks after the government launched a new £3.6m National County Lines Coordination Centre, made up of experts from police forces, organised crime units and the National Crime Agency.

They are working to build up intelligence on the complexity and scale of the threat, which is also linked to sexual exploitation.

A government spokesperson said the centre “will strengthen the law enforcement response to this issue and enable police forces to work together to tackle a crime that crosses regions and demands a multi-agency approach”.

“Schools, colleges and pupil referral units all have a legal duty to safeguard children, and we have begun an externally led review on exclusions to explore why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded than others,” he added.

“We are also reforming alternative provision to make sure that children who aren’t in mainstream schools receive a high-quality education which allows them to succeed and fulfil their potential.”

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