County lines exploitation developed in the last decade, we can end it in the next
Across Britain, children are being groomed and exploited by criminal gangs to sell drugs and create a small violent gang of enforcers to protect the turf of the dealing gang. The children are groomed, used and then disposed of having created profits for wealthy people they will never meet who live in luxury in gated homes.
For several years I have been working with a group of mums whose children have been exploited. I have space for just one of their horrifying stories, that of a fierce, street-savvy mum I’ll call Ashley (pseudonym), and her son, Kofi (pseudonym).
When Kofi was 15, his older neighbour started taking an interest. At first, they’d play football, tell jokes: nothing threatening. But then the older lad started telling Kofi school wasn’t for him, there were better ways of getting money and respect. Ashley saw the signs too late because the groomer was smart and manipulative.
Three days before Christmas, Kofi didn’t come home. Ashley was frantic, contacting the police repeatedly, and then Kofi called her the next night, whispering, telling her some men had him and he didn’t know where he was. It was terrifying. I hate to imagine what Kofi witnessed.
We need sustained, consistent and effective interventions as soon as the danger signs appear
Ashley had to repeatedly demand action. Officers searched Kofi’s room, finding weapons and stolen clothing. Ashley again called the police when Kofi returned. He, and his family, had been threatened with violence if he didn’t pay his drug “debt”.
Kofi went to the police the next day, but everything Ashley had said was ignored. The items found were used to build a case against him, not the men who had groomed, exploited, traumatised and threatened him. No-one came to ensure Kofi was OK.
After that, Kofi was never the same again. He’d bravely risked extreme violence to speak to the police but was still charged and sentenced for robbery. Even a year later, when Kofi was about to be accepted into the army to change his life for the better, his hopes were dashed when further historic robberies were laid at his door. Ashley thinks it’s because Kofi was turning 18, enabling a bigger punitive “result”.
She has seen Kofi’s groomer, still walking the streets of Newham, flashing the money he’s made destroying the lives of children.
The other mums have very similar stories, and raise further issues, including repeated failures to understand and intervene by school staff and social workers, and the disastrous damage of exclusions.
Progress has been made over the years I’ve been raising this. The Modern Slavery Act is used, sporadically but increasingly, to prosecute county lines groomers. Training on signs and responses to child criminal exploitation (CCE) is more common. My local police are clear, they go after exploiters.
More action is needed from the government. Children are arrested who should be safeguarded, and there is far too small a gap between the sentences received by drug criminals who exploit children and those who do not.
The only way we are going to stop CCE is with clear penalties, sufficient to make this economic model “unprofitable”.
That means looking above street level, at those who make the real money from facilitating this abuse – the drug bosses, importers, wholesalers, and money launderers. We need to look at holding them accountable even when there’s no direct link to a specific child or specific groomer, because they need to be given an incentive to clean house and change the criminal business model.
We need sustained, consistent and effective interventions as soon as the danger signs appear. There are excellent models to draw upon from the Violence Reduction Units, but these must be expanded in scope and spread across the country.
Every area needs pathways for early and continuing intervention, proactively managed by accountable local bodies, and delivered through well-resourced social work teams, police, schools, and long-term partnerships with the community organisations who know their area best. The government must have the data and the will to proactively monitor local prevention activities as part of a national strategy to end this form of child abuse.
The failure of the “drug war” to reduce drug harms doesn’t have to be matched by failure to end the murderous involvement of children. This “county lines” problem developed in the last decade, so we can end it in the next.
The women I have been working with over the past years, like Ashley, are amazing. They are still trying to rescue their children from the exploiters, but they do not have the resources to do so, and our systems so often work against them. This must change, and my Ten-Minute Rule Bill, I hope, offers constructive ideas and pressure to make that change happen.
Lyn Brown is the Labour MP for West Ham.
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