DDN October 2020 ‘We have a unique role in breaking county lines’ | Page 6


Just a child

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

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 ,’
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
‘ 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 .’