Children in almost all areas of the country are being arrested for dealing Class A drugs, including crack, heroin and cocaine, The Independent can reveal.
Criminals are turning to children as young as 12 to peddle hard drugs, according to police arrest records.
Freedom of Information requests to police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed that in 2016, 71 per cent of forces arrested children under the age of 16 on suspicion of supplying crack, heroin or cocaine.
When all types of Class A substances were considered, the proportion of forces arresting under-16s for hard-drug dealing last year rose to 86 per cent – 30 out of the 35 forces who supplied useable information.
Further investigations produced suggestions that children as young as eight are being sucked into a world of drug dealing where gangs use torture as a means of asserting their authority, and knives, Tasers, boiling water and acid as weapons.
The Independent has been told of London schoolchildren being sent to deal from crackhouses as far away as Scotland, with the girls sometimes being raped and “owned” by male gang members.
By the age of 14, some child drug dealers are “already seasoned. [They have] done lots of things, sold lots of drugs and been in lots of traumatising situations”.
In Nottingham, former teenage drug dealers spoke of facing junkies wielding “Rambo knives”, and becoming so used to violence that one of them viewed punishment beatings as “just business”.
“My concern is that this is the next child exploitation scandal,” said one adult working with gangs.
The revelations come after a report by MPs also raised fears about drugs gangs exploiting minors who go missing from home or care, and called for such children to be treated as victims of grooming rather than criminals.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults warned: “Patterns of grooming of children for criminal exploitation are very similar to those of sexual exploitation. In the past, child sexual exploitation was often perceived amongst professionals as the victim’s fault, or due to their risky behaviour.
“Vulnerable young people who are trafficked and exploited by gangs to distribute drugs are still too often perceived to have ‘made a choice’ and are therefore criminalised rather than safeguarded and recognised as victims of the gangs who control them.
“Prevention of children being groomed and exploited in this context should be seen as the top priority for local and national decision makers.”
The information supplied by police to The Independent suggests that whereas before the substances peddled by child pushers might have been “soft” drugs like cannabis, violent criminal gangs are now luring younger and younger children into dealing harder and harder drugs.
Twenty-two forces – 63 per cent – arrested suspected Class A dealers aged 14 or younger, and eight – nearly one in four – detained 13 year olds on suspicion of pushing hard drugs.
Recorded incidents included a 13-year-old boy arrested on suspicion of supplying crack and heroin in Norwich, a suspected 13-year-old heroin dealer in South Yorkshire, and 13-year-old suspected cocaine dealers in the West Midlands, Lancashire and Kent.
The youngest child involved was a 12-year-old boy, arrested in Dorset for possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply. Police did not recover any controlled substances, so the boy was not charged, but “advice was given”.
Outside the Class A category, Humberside Police reported that they had received an anonymous tip-off that a nine-year-old girl was supplying cannabis.
Detectives were unable to substantiate the allegation, but the suggestion that dealers were now so young was echoed by charity and gang-intervention workers, who admitted to being alarmed at the extreme youth of some of the children involved.
“It starts as low as eight,” said Caroline Shearer, of the Clacton, Essex-based charity Only Cowards Carry, “Moving drugs on the street, a little packet from outside the fast food restaurant to drop off at the budget hotel.
“And if the child loses that package, he gets beaten for losing it. And if he gets caught in another gang’s area, they beat him for being on their turf, and take the package. Then the child goes back to his gang and gets beaten up for getting beaten up.
“There’s no decency, no scruples, no mercy. It’s an evil, vicious circle.”
Just how vicious was suggested by Colin James, the founder of London-based Gangs Unite.
When The Independent spoke to Mr James, 47, a former gang member who now works to stop young people making the same mistakes he did, he had just been trying to help a 16-year-old girl.
“She’s been raped,” he said. “She’s got links to four gangs. She’s ‘owned’ by a boy from each gang – as in, ‘I’m a senior gang member, I like a girl, I’ve claimed her, she’s mine’.
“The girls submit to that. They may be used like a mattress, but protection, and all those things that are offered by the gang, they prefer that to their own value and self-worth.
“It’s horrific, but they can’t see it.”
The 16-year-old girl, he said, had been “sent all over the place”.
Mr James added: “They found her in Scotland once. It’s quite a normal thing for young people. We have got quite a few minors who have gone missing for days.
“They send them up to crackhouses. Sometimes the girls are up there for just sexual reasons, but 99.9 per cent of the time, it’s selling drugs.”
The National Crime Agency (NCA) calls this increasingly prevalent gangland practice “county lines”. A gang in a big urban centre expands into county towns by means of a “deal line”.
The mobile phone number is controlled from the urban base, while foot soldiers are sent from the city or recruited in the county town.
Drug users in the county town phone the city-based deal line. Orders are then sent to the foot soldiers in the town, who deliver the crack, heroin or cocaine.
For the gangs, it helps if the foot soldiers are children: cheap, expendable, easily controlled, with the added benefit of often being able to operate under the police’s radar.
Some gangs seek children without a criminal record. Others, the NCA noted in its November county lines report, targeted white British children “because groups believe they are less likely to be targeted by law enforcement”.
They put the children in “cuckooed addresses”, often crackhouses taken over by whatever violence and intimidation was necessary.
“Instances of firearms being kept visible at cuckooed addresses to intimidate victims were reported,” said the NCA, “As well as drugs users being seriously assaulted or even tortured as a show of strength to other users and gangs.”
County lines drugs markets are now operating 24 hours a day, the NCA said. “Returns from 2016 indicate a considerable increase in law enforcement awareness of the use of children … 80 per cent of areas saw the exploitation of children by gangs.”
Possible glimpses of this appeared in the FoI returns: the 14-year-old boy arrested by British Transport Police in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in connection with 15 wraps of cocaine and a brown powder thought to be heroin; the 15-year-old girl arrested in Bedford in November on suspicion of supplying cocaine, who was “processed on behalf of another force”.
For the gangs, it means, according to NCA figures, an average of £2,000 a day for every county lines operation they set up.
For the children, it can mean, as reported to the Catch22 charity by a police officer who feared children were being recruited from within a school: “They’ll end up in a crackhouse somewhere in their school uniform, for days upon days, and promised loads of money that they never see.”
“Seventy per cent of areas,” noted the NCA, “reported violence towards other members of the gang, usually runners, when they made mistakes or were accused of stealing.”
“The type of violence adopted by gangs,” added the report “[was] dependent upon the prevalent gang and their chosen style. Knives are the most common weapon. Bats, hammers, Tasers, boiling water and acid are also noted.”
In Bristol, Helen Rosenthal, the manager of Catch22’s Dawes Unit, which researches ways to reduce the harm caused by gangs, is growing increasingly worried.
“The county lines problem is coming to be seen everywhere,” she said. “In Bristol, we have seen looked-after children going missing and returning with worrying signs like having no sense of where they have been, but having money in their pockets.
“My concern is that this is the next child exploitation scandal.”
Just how easily some children can be groomed or exploited was revealed by her colleague Jamal Forrest, 34, originally from the inner-city area of Winson Green, Birmingham. Recruited himself at the age of 15, he soon became one of the recruiters.
Now he speaks with the sadness of a man who has been shot three times, who has seen the grief of mothers after they have lost sons to gang violence, and who must live every day with the remorse at some of the things he did.
“It’s like a recruitment agency,” he admits. “When you look at these young people, you see business opportunities.
“They are attracted to trinkets. You can give them money, alcohol…”
And you only need to recruit one child yourself: “Once you have got that one young person around you, because of their social circles, they can do the recruiting for you. It’s a domino effect.”
The false glamour and material wealth of a gangster, he says, “attract like something shiny to a magpie. They are drawn to a lifestyle of no benefit to their soul.”
As shown by the experiences of former schoolboy drug dealers in Nottingham.
“You are young, you are naive” says “Peter”, now 25 and not long out of prison. “You think the rewards outweigh the risks.”
Peter – not his real name – grew up in St Ann’s, Nottingham, at a time when the main road going through the area was acquiring the nickname “Death Mile” because of all the gang-related shootings that had occurred along it.
He “knew of” his father, but never knew him. By the age of 12, he was in care, “a very, very angry child” – the prefect target, perhaps, for the “domino effect” described by Mr Forrest.
Aged 15, he saw older teenagers who had been dealing for a while.
“They’ve got trainers, cars, everything you wanted to buy,” he said.
“I knew friends. I saw what they were doing and wanted to be part of it, wanted to be able to buy myself nice things and not be struggling.
“I asked one of my mates. He told me who to talk to. I was straight out there selling drugs.”
Dealing cannabis, crack and heroin, he carried a kitchen steak knife “for safety”. It was of limited use with one junkie, who had ordered a 0.2g wrap of heroin and a 0.2g wrap of crack.
Instead of pulling out a £20 note to pay for the drugs, said Peter, “He pulled out this 10in Rambo knife.”
At about the same time, “David” was experiencing similar violence, in the same part of Nottingham.
“I was a good kid,” he says, “Manners, the works. I grew up in a church, grandmother used to take us there as kids.”
But he saw a friend earning £200 a day selling crack and heroin. He too wanted to be able to “go to town and buy two pairs of trainers for £90 each”.
To the family with whom he was staying, it seemed as if 15-year-old David was getting up every day at 7am, and pedalling away on his bike for a healthy gym session before school.
In fact he was heading out with up to 80 wraps of heroin and crack, and selling them to make profits of £200 a day. And the BMX Mongoose had been stolen to order by a junkie who traded bikes for drugs.
“I was still trying to do my GCSEs,” explains David, now a voluntary worker in his 20s. But by the time he got to the school gates, he might have done ten crack or heroin deals. And when school – in his case a pupil referral unit – finished at 2pm, he would be out until midnight doing plenty more.
By the time he was 16, he had taken on a 15-year-old assistant.
Business was “superfast”, profits up to £600 a day: “Living the life: parties with mad lots of alcohol, quad bikes, motorbikes, trainers, jewellery.”
And punishment beatings.
Aged 15, David dished out his first punishment beating, to a “fragile” addict twice his age, who had tried to cheat him on a deal, “So the next time he sees me, he knows not to do it again.”
When his 15-year-old assistant made a mistake that nearly got him arrested, “I hit him once in the face.
“But I didn’t want to mark his face, because he was still a friend. So I started hitting him in the chest.
“I always thought of it as just business.”
Even today, David calmly declares: “This wasn’t really violent for me. I have grown up, seen all these stabbings, shootings. Fighting was just what you did in the school playground.”
It is hard not to draw parallels with the mindset of child soldiers, so accustomed to violence that they accept it without question.
“The moral codes are a bit confused,” admits Mr Forrest, even for the adult gangsters doing the recruiting. “At the time, you kind of convince yourself that you are helping someone less fortunate.”
All those who spoke to The Independent have since reformed. But for others, said Hya Francis-Watson, founder of the Chayah Project, which is now helping the Nottingham ex-teenage gangsters, “There is no hope. Education goes through the window, your blood family goes through the window. They lose their childhood. They get really stuck.”
The grandmother-of-ten enthuses about organising carnivals, sports, midnight football, “anything to keep them off the streets”.
But she talks too of the need for investment in youth services, clubs, advice centres that might catch would-be child drug dealers before it is too late. And she concludes: “The way society is, it’s not going to change.”
Reacting to The Independent's findings, Ann Coffey, the head of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: “These figures are shocking. Young people who are groomed into drug running by adults are being exploited in the same way as those enticed into sexual activity. They are vulnerable and need our support.
“We mustn’t make the same mistakes again that were made in the early child sexual exploitation scandals, where the girls were blamed for their own exploitation and for making a ‘lifestyle choice’.
“We need to change our attitudes. We don’t yet have a system that can deal with victims who have also become offenders.”
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