One area under consideration by the review is harms outside the home, including criminal exploitation of young people – something children in and on the edge of care are more vulnerable to. ‘County lines’ is a phrase that’s increasingly used in the media and by policy makers to describe drug trafficking into rural areas and smaller towns out of bigger cities – with the ‘lines’ in question relating to phone numbers dedicated to this activity.
Chris Wild, a member of the review’s Expert by Experience Board is a care sector professional and former residential house manager for semi-independent care homes for young people.
In this blog Chris shares his experience and describes the spiral too many young people follow from feeling isolated in care, to thinking they have found a connection, to becoming trapped in the employ of a county lines network.
The County Lines trade has exploded in recent years. In 2018, the National Crime Agency (NCA) reported that there were 2,000 individual deal lines in the UK, linked to 1,000 branded County Lines. Each one was capable of making up to £5,000 per day. The people running these operations, the ‘kingpins’ sending out the orders as they flash their ill-gotten gains on social media, are recruiting directly from the care system to maintain their dirty business.
County Lines is a modern-day iteration of Fagin’s workhouse in Oliver Twist. It’s a form of modern slavery, no different to child labour of days gone by, where young people were forced to work in cotton mills in arduous conditions. The poorest and most vulnerable of society being used to do the dirty work for rich criminals pulling all the strings.
They might not have to scramble into machinery to unthread a piece a cotton that’s stopping mass production, risking their limbs and even their lives, but being involved with County Lines is just as dangerous and – tragically – the lives of those ensnared in it are just as short.
You might hope that when young people come into the care sector, life should get easier. But that’s far from the truth. They are too often vulnerable, desperate to fit in or too scared to defy orders that come from people they believe have the power to harm them. Once they leave the care sector and come into semi-independent or supported accommodation, they’re even more exposed than they were before.
It only takes one bad placement, with staff members who don’t care, or being forced to stay in a hostel full of criminals and drug users because there’s nowhere else to go, that can see a child slip through the net into a life of pain, violence and trauma with these drug gangs.
Cash-strapped councils in urban areas struggle to find affordable houses or foster homes locally for older children, so they send them to privately run provisions in cheaper rural and suburban areas miles away from any friends or family. It’s these inadequacies in the system that makes children leaving care even more vulnerable.
In December 2019 a BBC report revealed that about 30,000 children in care lived outside of their local area, with nearly 12,000 placed 20 miles from their homes. In the context of County Lines, this can have an enormous impact. It essentially creates a brand new ‘line’ for criminal gangs.
Miles from anything they know; isolated, scared and alone these children begin to spiral and the leaders of these gangs know exactly where to find them. In those unassuming houses tucked away in residential streets They befriend them, gain their trust and once they have it, they abuse them. Even when attempts are made to help kids out of County Lines, the system falls short.
I see the parallels between Oliver Twist and County Lines. County Lines are glorified in music, TV and on social media. It’s made to look appealing to disenfranchised youths. As a seven-year-old, I watched Oliver Twist, with the singing and dancing and I was enthralled. I couldn’t wait to grow up, be a thief and have lots of fun… and money!
As fate would have it. I ended up in care and did end up in a gang. I was 11-years-old when I took my first beating from an older boy. I’d been keeping watch while he broke into someone’s house, but I missed the owners coming back home. I panicked and ran without warning him. He managed to escape, but my actions weren’t forgotten. Back on our estate, he found me, punched me full force in the face, told me I had cost him nearly £500 and I had to make it back. I was in debt to the gang and I’d never been so scared. For the next six months, I did whatever he told me to do – delivering packages, keeping watch, shoplifting. None of it was fun. Not so Oliver Twist after all.
The same is true today. There’s nothing glamorous about being in a County Line. I’ve never met a single young person who’s told me it was amazing and that they made loads of money. Someone is making an abundance of cash alright, but they’re the ones staying well clear of the limelight. The police and local authorities don’t even know who these people are, no one ever does. It’s like the Banksy effect, we know they exist, we even know who they might be. But unless they’re caught red handed we’ll never know.
More often than not children are moved into care to protect them from harm. But for too many children, especially teenagers, moving into care can be a case of – out of the frying pan and into the fire. The move from their community and networks of people who know and love them can leave young people adrift and easy prey for criminal networks.
Throughout my time as a member of the Expert by Experience board it’s been music to my ears hearing the importance that’s being attached to relationships in this review. Being isolated and cut adrift with no one who cares for them leaves too many young people vulnerable to gangs. Not every modern day Oliver Twist will find their kindly Mr Brownlow but building a care system which sees the importance of assembling a tribe of caring and decent adults around young people is a good place to start.