Just a child

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The exploitation involved in ‘county lines’ is an urgent call for action, as DDN reports.

Transport police
Read the full article in DDN magazine

The brutal killing of a 16-year-old boy shook his community in Shropshire. How had this happened on the streets of Shrewsbury? As the investigation began, a picture emerged that took all of the support services by surprise.

Michael had been living in the county, miles away from his home in Merseyside, for 18 months. Not only was he hidden from sight; his life had been taken over – and ended – by a drug dealing network that has become known as ‘county lines’.

‘What we uncovered was a turf war battle between two gangs,’ says Sonya Jones, service manager and safeguarding lead at We Are With You, Shropshire. ‘Michael was killed as part of a turf wars gang.’ In the days that followed, Jones and her colleagues discovered ‘many active lines’ in the county: ‘It changes on a regular basis – between ten to 20 lines are running actively at one time in Shropshire. As soon as one is taken out by the police, another one springs up,’

Sonya James
‘Youth justice is set up to work with perpetrators – but what we know is that these children are not perpetrators, they are actual victims of crimes themselves. They are victims of modern slavery.’ Sonya Jones

The term ‘county lines’ was coined in 2015 and has become recognised as a business model. County lines evolved as a result of market saturation, where gangs from London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool began to work out of regional markets, says Jones. Children are used because they are an ‘easily controlled and quite an inexpensive resource – often referred to as Bics, as in Bic razor, because they are so disposable’.

The business model is built on exploitation – of vulnerable adults as well as children. Properties are taken over, or ‘cuckooed’, and the young people are used to ‘run’ the drugs, travelling between urban and county locations to replenish stock.

Recruitment usually takes place using free or extremely cheap cannabis, to entice children into the gang. The grooming starts at about 13, and many of the children are previously unknown to services, explains Jones. Before they know it, they are ensnared by debt bondage – a police ‘stop and search’ or a fake robbery removes £60 worth of cannabis – and they are trapped in the gang, ‘modern day slaves’.

‘Gangs are always looking at ways to keep them within their control and power, dehumanising their thoughts about the adult service users who they would be selling to,’ she says. ‘Once they are in debt bondage, the distribution of class A drugs really takes hold and the children have no control of anything.’

Some of these children are ‘vulnerable’ – young people with complex mental health needs, with ‘looked after’ status, excluded from school, or experiencing poverty and family breakdown. But equally, it can happen to anyone’s child.

‘I spoke to a father yesterday who had paid off two thousand pounds of a drug debt to a gang,’ says Jones. ‘His son is 16, an A level student who started smoking cannabis. He was offered free cannabis to sell to a friend, took that opportunity, and has ended up in debt which his parents have paid off.’

Over the past few months, however, COVID has changed the business model. A heightened police presence has prompted the 16- and 17-year-olds who have become quite well known to local police – and who are still in debt bondage themselves – to recruit younger children of 12, 13, 14, to do the drug running. ‘County lines are becoming increasingly hidden,’ says Jones, with many young people being moved around the county under the cover of darkness.

Dr Paul Andell, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Suffolk, is in a position to give further insight into gang culture, having interviewed young people and gang members in three regions, on six sites, over ten years, and undertaken numerous policy reviews.

Drug arrest
Clacton, Essex, 6 February 2020. Essex Police execute county lines drug dealing search warrants across Essex and London, resulting in a number of arrests and seizure of class A drugs and cash. Credit: Ricci Fothergill / Alamy

The transition of some gangs from ‘street-based collectives’ to organised crime networks has raised important safeguarding issues, he says, where young people are both perpetrators and victims of crime.

‘Young people were committing horrendous acts on each other and there was a culture of violence emerging because globalised gangster culture was playing its part on how people should behave, mediated of course through social media,’ he says. He mentions scaldings with sugared water, slashings which were videoed, and people being bundled into the boots of cars and kidnapped.

The workforce has a structure, with junior members kept in check with ‘symbolic violence’ – they are given a beating, and everyone gets to know about it. If somebody robs the line or encroaches on custom, it becomes more extreme. ‘We’ve seen an increase in these violent acts,’ says Andell.

Lethal violence is prompting many of the ‘smarter’ kids to leave the drugs business, which leaves ‘a pool of more vulnerable young people’ taking their place. The incentives are social capital, bonding, a need to belong and be part of a family and a social network, he says, as well as ‘the promise of a glittering future in the drug-dealing world, the promise of riches’. Coming from a background of social exclusion can increase the odds, when ‘young people might not make it in the legitimate economy, so they try their luck in the illegitimate economy’.

His research matches Jones’ experience that cannabis is usually the access drug: ‘Cannabis markets are the talent pool,’ he says. ‘If you can be trusted in the cannabis market, you can be trusted in the class A market.’ The other element is the ‘boyfriend model’, which involves young girls through ecstasy: ‘The girls think that the perpetrators are their boyfriends and often this happens in a party setting, hence the high level of party drugs used by the young females,’ says Jones.

Dame Carol Black’s Review of drugs (DDN, February, page 4) talks of young people and children being pulled into the drugs supply on an alarming scale, especially at the most dangerous end of the market. This very violent business model earns profits of more than £800,000 a year from an individual line, she says, with ‘the rise in the county lines business model a major factor in increased drug-related violence’.

Much of this chimes with The Lammy review (September 2017) and its recommendations for the youth justice system. Joining the cross-party parliamentary group discussion, shadow justice secretary David Lammy said there was nothing new about adults recruiting young people into organised crime.

‘When we talk about these young people caught up with knives and drugs, the poverty and austerity that led them into that, we must realise that this is nothing new – it’s old. All you need to do to understand that is to read Oliver Twist.

‘Until we get serious about dealing with organised crime – and resource it – we’re not going to crack the problem,’ he added. This meant reforming prison and probation systems, because ‘recidivism rates are the worst in Europe. There’s something not working when there’s a cycle of crime and people are committing crimes over again and the system is not rehabilitating them.’

While waiting for national strategy reform, there is also much that can be done to improve knowledge locally with stakeholders, says Anders. There needs to be ‘a focus on situational and social prevention – interventions which bring about neighbourhood improvement’ and eradicate childhood poverty, ‘because many of the young people involved in county lines come from relatively deprived neighbourhoods’. Social and agency interventions need to move away from incarceration – ‘those recruitment grounds for gangs’ – and towards community supervision and peer-led work.

Just as Shropshire’s services learned from the shocking case in their county, there are important lessons for all concerned with youth justice and safeguarding. ‘We need to re-examine the traditional victim-perpetrator dynamic because it’s more complex than that,’ says Anders, and has ramifications for training and practice across all the services.

Supporting the ‘absolutely crucial’ multi-agency approach, Sonya Jones points to the ‘quite unique’ role of substance misuse services in having the knowledge and expertise to work holistically and without judgement.

‘We are not social services, we are not youth justice, we are a service where young people feel that they want support… we become their advocates,’ she says. ‘Youth justice is set up to work with perpetrators – but what we know is that these children are not perpetrators, they are actual victims of crimes themselves. They are victims of modern slavery.’ DDN

Discussion in this article took place at the latest Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group on county lines, gangs and youth justice.

Picture credit, top photo: 28 February 2020, London. British Transport police in operation as part of operation Sentinel, tackling drug crime.
Credit: Paul Iwala / Alamy