LBC investigation: County lines gangs exploiting children as young as eight

18 June 2021, 06:42 | Updated: 18 June 2021, 16:15

By Chris Chambers

An investigation by LBC has found children as young as eight are being exploited by county lines gangs to deal drugs, move weapons and hide cash.

We can also reveal:

  • Gangs are turning to social media to identify young people, coerce them into sending explicit images and then blackmailing them into dealing
  • Girls are being passed around gang members for sex as rewards for dealing
  • Violence is intensifying with male victims being raped to spread fear

County Lines drug gangs have been operating for decades but the pandemic has forced them to change their tactics.

Traditionally these organised crime groups (OCGs) will recruit vulnerable young people by offering them free drugs or things like bikes and clothes, then tell them they have a debt which has to be paid.

This 'debt bondage' is backed up with threats of violence and leads to the victims then feeling they have no choice but to work for the gang. Once recruited, they will be sent via trains to smaller towns and made to deal drugs.

With trains much quieter during the pandemic, the gangs have turned to using social media to find their victims, in many cases coercing them into sending explicit pictures and then blackmailing them.

Dr Grace Robinson, an expert in County Lines gangs at Nottingham University, exclusively told LBC News: "We know platforms like Snapchat and Instagram are used for the facilitation of drugs supply.

"Messages will be put up advertising certain strains of cannabis, or offering other Class A drugs. These platforms are being used to recruit young people.

"Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) are infiltrating snapchat and whatsapp groups to try and find young people in those areas. Once they've got one young person it's then easy to find their friends.

"They'll find a young girl with a make-up page, and they'll get another young girl to start liking that make-up page, go through their friend list and see who else they can use in that area.

"There's been a real increase in self harm and suicide of young males, particularly between the ages of 17 and 19. The reason for that has been attributed to an increase in online grooming and online harm with young males and females being coerced into taking explicit images of themselves.

"Once it's in the hands of these perpetrators it's being used as something to hold over their head to say if you don't engage in drug supply someone's going to see this image.

"Young children involved are feeling so trapped they're thinking the only way out is self-harm or suicide. We spoke to one youth worker in A&E who had spoken to someone who'd drunk a litre of bleach.

"He'd been forced to engage in a rape of another young person but couldn't carry it out and ran home. Because he couldn't carry that rape out they were threatening to kill him."

The exploitation of young girls for sex has also been a feature of the way gangs are operating. Dr Robinson added: "The sexual violence and exploitation that females are experiencing at the moment is much more severe than it has been.

"We have reports that girls are being passed around OCGs as a reward for competent drug supply. So, when a young person has proved themselves or done something worthy of reward these females will be used sexually to fulfil sexual demands. We've also had reports of pop-up brothels in certain areas with OCGs identifying flats that are really inhospitable, and then putting young females in there, and they do tend to be young British girls as well."

The average age of these young people tends to be around 13-14 years old, but LBC News can reveal children as young as eight are being exploited by gangs.

Alan Walsh is a youth worker in Liverpool, he said: "They get offered trainers, brand new bikes, like they're part of a friendship group, riches they could never dream of. It's the terminology they use, they'll always be called "mate", they're really embraced into the gang community. This young person thinks they are their friend, but before they know it they're in debt, and they're owing drug dealers and gang members and they have to pay it back somehow.

"The youngest I've seen is aged eight. That eight-year-old chose to live that life and go on the streets, but only because their mum and dad weren't around, there was no family structure around to keep them safe from these people. He was just mixing round with the gangs on the streets, then over a few months was doing a little bit of running for them, being asked to drop stuff off, that kind of thing, and before he knew it, at the age of eight, he's involved."

It's feared the pandemic will lead to a new wave of young people caught up in County Lines dealing. Paul Walmsley works with youth offenders on Merseyside and told LBC: "The challenges we're facing at this moment in time is that we have a year of forgotten kids.

"There would have been a load of young kids who would have ben excluded from mainstream school, usually year 9 or 10, who would have gone to an approved school and met someone who would have wanted to help them, but there'll be at least 200 kids around the city who would have gone to these schools who are now not going and will have elevated themselves into crime.

"I know of loads of young people who are now robbing cars, smoking weed, hanging round with people they shouldn't be hanging round with, who should have been great boxers, great football players and could have done well at school.

"Because of this year being left out of school as well, that's what that's created. Also in Liverpool, it's a foot on the ladder and sort of an option for them to become a criminal, and because people see it as a bit of a lifestyle and in deprived areas there's not much else."

Speaking to LBC about her research project, "Covid-19, Vulnerability and the Safeguarding of Criminally Exploited Children", Dr Grace Robinson explained how levels of violence are increasing as gangs enforce their activities: "We spoke to some youth workers in A&E departments predominantly in London and Birmingham who said they'd seen an increase in stab wounds, but not just in the occurrence, also the number of stab wounds that each young person was experiencing had gone from 1-2 to around 5-6. In order to try and keep those young people off the system perpetrators were also taking children to different A&Es in the city, and using out-of-hours GP surgeries, really just to keep them off the system and remove that safe-guarding element.”

If you are affected by any issues in this piece Catch 22 can offer help. Visit their website for more information.