The Children’s Society is campaigning to protect children from exploitation by organised criminals – crucially, it wants any child being controlled by drug dealers to be recognised as a victim, not a criminal
The police interview room was cold and bare. Two police officers sat across the table from 15-year-old Robbie*. “We are charging you with intent to supply,” said one. Robbie said nothing. He was terrified of what the police would do to him if he didn’t speak, but he was even more scared of the people who had forced him to sell drugs.
Robbie is just one of the thousands of young people exploited by organised crime groups running “county lines” operations every year. While the exact numbers of children affected by county lines is unknown, it is estimated there are about 27,000 children identified as gang members in England. These criminal organisations lure children – some as young as seven – with cash, gifts, drugs and alcohol, as well as offers of friendship and status. Once groomed, they blackmail and coerce them into carrying and selling drugs in towns and villages across the UK. They use violence, sexual abuse and threats to keep the child under control.
While some children are more vulnerable – such as those in care and those living in poverty – any child can fall victim to these highly sophisticated organised criminal groups. “Any child from any background can feel lost and lonely, have mental health problems, or have parents going through their own challenges in life, including everything from relationship breakdown or the loss of a job, to substance misuse or domestic abuse,” says James Simmonds-Read, national Prevention programme manager at The Children’s Society. “These children are not making easy money. They are experiencing horrific violence and sexual abuse. They are victims.”
When Robbie’s behaviour started going downhill and he was caught shoplifting, his mother Jenny* thought he was just going through a difficult age. Then he went missing for three weeks. A police officer brought him home: Robbie refused to tell Jenny where he had been. The officer told Jenny that he suspected Robbie was being groomed to go “up country” to sell drugs. Then came the arrest.
Despite the evidence that Robbie was not a drug dealer but a victim who needed protection, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided to prosecute. Desperately searching the web, Jenny found The Children’s Society, which runs programmes to support those who have been affected by child criminal exploitation, and campaigns to bring it to an end. She was referred to their Disrupting Exploitation programme, which supports parents as well as children who are being criminally exploited.
Jenny’s therapist at The Children’s Society, Alex, didn’t judge her. She gave her suggestions on how to rebuild her relationship with Robbie by spending quality time with him and communicating with him more effectively. And she encouraged her to see the good she was doing, rather than beating herself up. “It helped my confidence and built me back up as a person, because I took responsibility for all this and I felt very guilty,” says Jenny.
The Children’s Society’s project worker Jeffrey Williams-Baah works for the charity’s Stride service, supporting young people who have been criminally exploited, or who are at risk of criminal exploitation. “Some of them are reluctant initially,” he says. “After all, they don’t know who I am. So I spend time building a rapport with them. I am non-judgmental. After a few meetings, in a safe space, they start to open up and we can start making a long-term plan for them.”
Undoing the damage caused by organised crime groups doesn’t happen overnight. But, says Williams-Baah, it can be done. “I’ve seen young people supported to escape from these hostile environments, who then educate their friends about the risks of county lines and criminal exploitation. Some have gone to college. I’ve also personally seen huge differences in attitude and behaviour.”
But system change is also vital when fighting child criminal exploitation. That’s why The Children’s Society works closely with authorities such as the police and the justice system. The charity wants to see a focus on policies that allow professionals to intervene earlier to protect children before they suffer harm. It wants a system that more consistently supports young victims, rather than targeting them as criminals – and which always disrupts and brings to justice the perpetrators who are grooming them.
Jenny was determined that Robbie should be seen as a victim of child trafficking and exploitation. But it was only after a long fight that he was referred to court under the NRM – the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national system for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery. Even so, the CPS refused to drop the case against him. It wasn’t until he got to court that the judge finally cleared him of all charges.
“We are calling on the government to introduce a national strategy to end the current postcode lottery in responses to child exploitation – and we need this type of exploitation to be defined in law,” says Simmonds-Read. “The Modern Slavery Act doesn’t have a definition of child criminal exploitation. Children involved in county lines should also be more consistently referred to and identified as victims under the NRM, which should then give them access to more support.”
Robbie is now safe at home with Jenny, has passed his GCSEs, and is saving up for driving lessons. It could have been a very different story, and his family still has a long journey back. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, says Jenny. “I have read so many cases where families do not make it out. If services like The Children’s Society can reach more people, then hopefully we can have more stories of hope, like mine.”
*Both Robbie and Jenny are pseudonyms.
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