Inner-city gangs are trafficking children to sell drugs in towns and villages across Britain — a practice known as “county lines”. Why are their victims being criminalised?
I used to worry about his education and what he’d want to be when he grew up. Now I worry he could end up dead.” Sarah looks down at her hands clasped tight on her lap and starts to cry. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a son pass away, but that’s how it feels — that sense of loss.”
Theirs had been a “calm, loving family”. Sarah and her son, James, had always been close. Her family doted on him. “Spoilt rotten,” Sarah says, remembering how “every weekend, without fail, we’d get together as a family for dinner and he’d be doing a little performance”. They had a good life in London. Sarah worked in the City. Sometimes James would join her at her office, playing on the spare computer, legs swinging under the desk. They took holidays at their second home in Spain and did things together every weekend. But when James started secondary school, things changed dramatically.
Well-mannered, bright and popular, it was in sports that James shone. He represented the school in rugby, basketball and football. In hindsight, Sarah wonders if her first warning should have been how out-of-character it was when, one week, James refused to go to practice. He just didn’t feel up to it, he told his mother, who reassured his coaches he would be back next week. Then he refused to go again. “Initially, I thought maybe he was doing too much, with training in the week and matches on weekends. I thought perhaps he needed a break.”
Then James started coming home late. “Really late for a 14-year-old — 8pm, 9pm, then, on a few occasions, after midnight,” says Sarah. He’d make excuses — claim practice had overrun, or he had been with mates. “He was getting older and I assumed it was the usual teenage stuff of wanting to hang out with friends. I got upset with him, but that only seemed to escalate the situation.” James started disappearing overnight, then for weeks at a time, returning dirty, dishevelled and anxious. He refused to say where he’d been. His mother tried “everything”. She grounded him, confiscated his mobile, questioned him: where was he going? Who was he with?
“Nothing worked — he would go out anyway,” says Sarah, explaining that, by then, James’s behaviour had drastically changed. “He would spit in my face and call me names. It’s so hard to expect anyone to imagine it. What I didn’t know then was that normal parental boundaries wouldn’t work, because he was under duress.”
One day when James was 15 he jumped out of a window at their home and disappeared for three months. Frantic, Sarah searched his bedroom, finding a train ticket to Norfolk. Not long afterwards, she heard that James had been spotted at a mainline station. Sarah reported her son missing to the police, but it would be months before she learnt the truth.
James had become a victim of an alarming and underreported form of modern-day slavery affecting British teenagers. Police and local authorities call it “county lines”. It involves young people being recruited by inner-city gangs, put in cars or on trains, and trafficked hundreds of miles away from their home to seaside towns and small villages. Once there, they are given a mobile phone through which to sell drugs, usually crack and heroin. By running these telephone lines in different counties, city gangs have expanded their operations outside the saturated markets into new territories.