Honest conversations around county lines

Jade Clayton watches 'Dispatches: Britain’s Child Drug Runners'.

This powerful hard-hitting documentary made headlines after broadcasting last week, for exposing the cruel reality of the UK drug culture. The programme highlights the crisis the youth of today face – children as young as 11 being targeted, corrupted and exploited by criminal gangs to run drugs.

The narrator explains that there are around 2000 so-called 'county lines' across the UK, in areas that you would least expect. Dawn Raffield, Police Constable at Thames Valley Police, paints a picture of the beautiful ‘Harry Potter’ city of Oxford, juxtaposed with side streets where horrible things are happening out of sight of your typical tourist.

The viewer gets an insight into this hidden world as footage is shown of a 16-year-old girl named ‘Emily’ being picked up by police from a flat where she is residing with two young men. We learn that these men are known to Police for running one of the largest county line gangs in Oxford, and it transpires that Emily has been groomed by one of them. Dawn explains how the grooming taking place is gradual, in a way that makes the child believe that they have a choice. When they are asked to perform a criminal act, it doesn’t appear abnormal – they just want to be a part of the gang.

The programme also explores how the advancements in technology are helping criminals to groom and recruit children. In today’s society people are paid to display materialistic content via social media to influence the viewer. Criminals can use social media and musical platforms to display a ‘high class’ lifestyle, boasting about designer goods and large amounts of money. Katy Harris, Strategic Intelligence Manager at South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, discusses how the reality is actually being in destitute drug dens in appalling conditions, being deprived of food and experiencing extreme stress for prolonged periods of time. This is very different from the glamour being projected.

Probably the most shocking part of the documentary is the discussion around how drugs are moved and secreted by children. Harris highlights the bleak reality of how children are being shown and taught how to secrete drug wraps in their bodily cavities, which is child sexual abuse. Jason Hogg, Deputy Chief Constable at Thames Valley Police, reminds the viewer that 'respectable' people within our communities – with jobs, careers and families – are buying drugs, potentially from county lines, for the weekend… indirectly driving the exploitation of these children.

The documentary captures the damaging impact of child exploitation by following the story of Jacob, a 16-year-old boy who was lured into a county line gang three years ago. We hear the story from Jacob’s brave mum; she describes him breaking down to her, appearing frightened and worried about owing money to the gang he was involved in, which ultimately led to him taking his own life. This devastating and avoidable outcome is an example of how children are being failed.

Overall the programme can be commended for addressing the pandemic that is happening in the UK and highlighting the importance of awareness and taking action. Tanayah Sam, who is a former gang member, stresses the importance of preventing children getting involved with gangs before the grooming takes place. He is shown delivering talks in schools about the dangers and realities, which instills hope for the future for the next generation of children.

The programme clearly conveys that this can happen to children from all backgrounds, not just those who are economically deprived. It's a powerful message, which clearly needs addressing urgently. The narrator states that campaign groups are urging for more funding for prevention and early intervention services. As Tanayah Sam says, these children want help and it is our job to help them. So let's have some honest conversations. 

Jade Clayton is a Senior Assistant Psychologist at Greater Manchester Mental Health 

Watch the programme on catch up now.

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