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Sex aged 10, drug dealing and brutal violence: The hidden epidemic of vulnerable girls being exploited by county lines gangs

'I was passed around like a minion. It was like I wasn’t really there. I could get up, clean myself off, and I would forget that something had happened five minutes later. I just blocked it out'

May Bulman
Saturday 16 February 2019 17:41 GMT
ITV News takes a look at County Lines drug dealing

Stacey* was 10 when she had sex for the first time. By the age of 13, she was routinely sexually exploited by older boys and men. As one of the youngest female members of a notorious gang, she didn’t have much choice.

“I was passed around like a minion. I don’t remember half of it. It was like I wasn’t really there,” she says matter-of-factly, recalling the sexual abuse. “I could get up, clean myself off, and I would forget that something had happened five minutes later. I just blocked it out.”

Groomed in a gang from the age of 12, sex with older members became a way of life during her adolescence. As well as being a sexual commodity, she quickly became a trusted drug mule. Senior gang members knew that, as a young girl, she had little chance of being stopped by police.

“I was jumping out of school to go get more drugs. When I was 15, I would get a text message when I was in English and I would get up, get my bag, jump over the fence and do what I needed to do. Sometimes I would go back into school afterwards,” says Stacey.

“It was very easy to be drawn in. And there’s money everywhere. I saved up £400 when I was 15. I realised I could make so much money. I never thought about getting out – I’d get out and do what? It wasn’t even an option. The gang becomes your family, that’s what keeps you in.”

Stacey’s experience is not an isolated one. In 2017, nearly 500 girls under the age of 18 were referred to the Home Office as suspected victims of sexual exploitation – up from 250 in three years. A further 110 female minors were referred for labour exploitation, up from 47 in 2014.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) which records these figures, attributes the rise largely to an increase in county lines gang exploitation. The agency recently admitted that the scale of dealing across the UK was three times larger than feared, with thousands of children being exploited.

While boys make up the bulk of drug dealers and runners, police have said girls and women were being sexually exploited or used for associated crime, including shoplifting and money laundering. Figures show there has been a 66 per cent increase in British nationals identified as potential child trafficking victims in 12 months – 38 per cent of whom were female.

Despite the frequency at which Stacey would abandon lessons to fulfil drug running duties, her gang involvement was never identified by teachers or children’s services in any meaningful way. Even when she told a school counsellor she was having sexual encounters with older males, no further enquiries were made.

“No one picked up on it. I spoke to a counsellor at school, mainly about sexual health,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot that I could disclose, but when I did disclose things, it never escalated to where it needed to. So I gave up. I stopped telling the truth; I started lying to services.”

Failure by authorities to recognise female gang involvement is a concern among the few third sector organisations that exist specifically to support young women in these situations.

The Gangs Matrix, a system set up by the Metropolitan Police in 2012 in a bid to crackdown on gang crime in London, has been criticised for taking a narrow focus on the issue. The latest data recorded by the system, which lists individuals as “gang nominals”, shows that 3,806 young people were listed, of which just 1 per cent were female.

A new project run by the Children’s Society, which is designed to tackle and disrupt child exploitation and operates across Greater Manchester, London and Birmingham, has found that of the young people identified in the charity, around 50 per cent were girls.

Jo Hunt, area manager for the project, said the charity had come across girls as young as 11 being exploited, but that too often they are not being identified by statutory services.

“We know young women and girls are being passed around by older men. But we need to do a lot more promotion and awareness raising in schools. We need to be upskilling the professionals to recognise the signs,” she said.

“Where there are a lot of teenage boys or men in gangs, you know there are going to be girls. Although they won’t necessarily be a part of the actual violence, they are on the peripheral, and they play an important role.”

Abi Billinghurst, founder of Abianda, a social enterprise that works with young women affected by gangs – said to be the only one in the country – says services are failing to identify and tackle female gang involvement.

“The young girls we’re working with don’t typically get the status of gang membership. They’re there as a commodity to the males within that setting,” she explains. “But often professionals don’t even have young women on their agenda when they’re thinking about the gang issue. They’re not proactively asking questions about the young women who might be orbiting the young men,” she says.

“We might see girls coming to notice more through sexual health services, mental health services or doctor’s surgeries, whereas boys might be coming to notice much more because of eruptions of violence within the community, and public damage or risk to other community members. There’s less of a focus on girls because they aren’t seen inflicting harm on other people or communities.”

At the age of 16, Stacey’s role within the gang dramatically changed. She formed a relationship with one of the leading members, a man who was 18 years her senior, which she says elevated her “straight to the top”.

“I stopped being passed around. I was just with him. Everyone knew about it. Once you’re in a relationship with a gang member, no one touches you,” she says. “He wasn’t attractive. He wasn’t young. But we both carried heroin. I moved in with him at 17.”

Life as a teenage drug dealer

The now 24-year-old, who removed herself from the gang world five years ago, acknowledges that although this relationship meant she was protected in a sense, it also exposed her to higher levels of violence and criminal activity – as she was required to start cooking drugs and she witnessed gang warfare up close.

“When he was angry it was a different level of anger than what I was used to,” she says of her ex-partner. “Sometimes he would leave the house angry and come back with blood on his knuckles and on his shoes. I wouldn’t know whose it was, but I’d know not to ask any questions, and wait for him to tell me. And if he told me, I’d know I couldn’t speak to anyone else.

“It was quite difficult seeing stuff and, as a young teenage girl, not being able to say anything to anyone.”

Ms Billinghurst, whose service helps girls and young women aged 11 to 24, says many of the girls she supports are having to navigate a “war zone”, confronted with complex and traumatic situations wherever they look. Yet shortcomings in service provision, and fear of repercussions from older male gang members, means many feel unable to escape from it.

“The perception of them accessing services from their associates, even if they’re just seeking help around their complex needs, is that they’re snitching, and therefore there could be subsequent threats of harm to them, their family and people they love,” she says.

“Young women remain hidden because of these barriers to accessing services, and this dilemma that they often find themselves in. They think, I’ll deal with the adversity on my own, even if that means living a nightmare.”

This “nightmare” is pervaded by the exposure to violence. As Stacey recalls: “I saw people in my peer group getting hurt on a regular basis. There would be an argument and it would end up in a fight.

“It quickly becomes normalised. If you hear that someone got stabbed you don’t go ‘Oh my god that’s so sad’, you go ‘Oh my god, what did he do?’ and you want to hear the drama. Even if you do feel a bit of sadness you’ve got to push that back and start enquiring, asking questions.

“I’ve gone to more funerals than I’ve gone birthday parties – that’s not even a joke – and I’m only 24.”

Stacey became pregnant at the age of 18, which she describes as “a route out”. At this point, because her partner brought in the bulk of their income, she had managed to start a job at a university – and she said getting pregnant was “the last thing she needed to do” to leave the gang.

Now a single mother with a four-year-old daughter, Stacey says she still has moments of considering falling back into a life in which a lot of money can be made with one sell.

“Sometimes now when my electricity is about to run out and I’ve only got £20 left and I don’t get paid until the following Friday, I think about that phone call that I could make and make £800 in an hour,” she says.

“I don’t do it. I feel like an addict, this must be how addicts feel, like having a withdrawal.”

Stacey believes county lines and gang crime has “completely developed” since she was involved, but that as a result of heightened media attention, more services are being developed to tackle the issues. She feels that she was failed – and that so were those abusing her.

“My teens were full of drama and abuse and half the time I didn’t know it was abuse. But I can’t hate anyone for it. I still bump into people and talk to people who have done things to me. But I can’t hate them, because they didn’t know that they were doing that,” she says.

“If they had the right support, they would know that they’ve done a lot of things to people, and they would probably hate themselves. Unfortunately they’re still stuck in that world so they’re probably out there doing it all the time. They are also victims to it.

“Now that it’s escalating and it’s more of a media issue, everyone wants to get their thumb out and bring up services. But sometimes it’s just too late. These services should’ve come 10 years ago when it was me, so that my generation could’ve been saved.”

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