Criminal exploitation of young people is not a new phenomenon. This practice has been taking place since Victorian England. The fairy tale image of Fagan and his troop of young pickpockets is very different to what is happening today. The exploiter is not the bearded old slouching man living in an attic, they are more sinister, calculated evil individuals. What has changed in recent years is the violence associated with the exploitation of young people and the complexity of the exploiter’s behaviour. I have heard people describe young men who exploit children to traffic drugs, as having excellent business acumen. We are seeing a new wave of extortion of adults through their exploited children.
County lines is already becoming an everyday word with people seeming to lose interest in what that means. Any exploitation of a child is a deplorable act, but for some reason, the term county lines, or criminal exploitation takes away the seriousness of the risk to the child which is mental abuse, serious violence and sometimes murder.
This article is not going to ignore the seriousness of the exploitation of a child through criminal and coercive means. It is going to explore the door to extortion that has been opened because of the grooming and capture of children.
The fact is, parents are sometimes the greater victims for both violence as well as demand with menace, the worst kind of extortion. Gwenton Sloley, the founder of Crying Sons, an organisation which works with families and young victims of the growing trend of violence and extortion, explains some shocking truths about what is really going on in the lives of these families.
Gwenton explains how two families in neighbouring boroughs became victims of child exploitation related extortion.
These exploiters know their victims and their families well. They are beginning to target children who are no longer from poverty-stricken households but from homes where parents are struggling financially but in full employment, or sometimes in receipt of child maintenance from fathers who are no longer in the family home.
This is how it works, a group of individuals or exploiters for example from Kingston and Richmond, will exploit a number of young people who they know have parents who are able to pay £500 a month until they settle a £15000 false drug debt.
These exploiters, or let’s call them what they are, drug dealers, will give their trappers a heavily mixed down package of class A drugs, ones that they would not be able to sell on the street due to their lack of potency.
To the child, this is a large consignment of drugs, and to the police if caught, it will test as a class A drug.
Before the child manages to deliver his package to the house on his county line or not get arrested, the dealer would arrange for robbers to viciously attack the child and steal the package. Now the child is in debt for the drugs. By having a trace of class A drugs in the package is important.
If the child is stopped by police and arrested, the tested package would show as a class A drug. This now means, either arrested or robbed, the child is in debt to the dealer for the street value of the drugs. The child cannot pay so their parent must pay.
Recently I received a call from a family where both the child and the mother had been stabbed because of a child drug debt. The mother in fear of further violence got the money by any means to pay the debt.
The families who were able to pay without no disruption to their bills, mortgage or rent, would pay the drug dealers in fear of violence. Whereas, the parents who did not have the money to pay, again because of the fear of violence, would use their rent money, and not pay their bills.
In some cases, these families were evicted from their property because of rent arrears. I also saw this with families I worked with in Croydon. The sickening thing of all was they had professionals, social workers and alike, encouraging them to pay off the drug debt to keep their family safe.
Child exploitation related extortion is seldom spoken about by the victims because of fear and embarrassment. Telling the police they are being extorted because their child is dealing drugs, they believed, would only get them into further trouble. What we must remember, like any extortion, the moment you start paying it, it never ends.
This prompted me to explore with Gwenton from his perspective, how young people were so easily groomed into selling drugs. He explained,
Every Monday the dealer would give the child a packet of cannabis worth £10. From this, the child had to sell in his school five £2 bags of cannabis to children each day for a week so he would make £50. He would pay the dealer the £50 feeling proud because he had made his groomer happy.
This kind of desire to please is also seen by young girls being sexually exploited by men. The next week, the dealer would give the child another larger packet of cannabis and expect him to sell more. What the child does not realise, is the drug dealer is often setting him up to become a full-time drug trafficker, but not in school.
The dealer knows most school policies is to permanently exclude a child dealing or in some cases just in possession of drugs. The child gets excluded and now they are in debt to the dealer and working full-time for him.
Hearing Gwenton talking about cannabis and child drug possession in schools, brought me back to a recent incident in a London school. The readiness to exclude children who may display difficult behaviour because they are being groomed is often overlooked especially when dealing with girl victims.
The child smelling of cannabis, prompts an excitement in the school staff to find drugs, so they call the police, and the criminalising of a child begins. Schools who act in this way, are they really safeguarding our children?
Gwenton continued by explaining, the way schools deal with a child and the smell of cannabis shows school staff need training on how to understand the complexities of cannabis and children.
If a child is using cannabis, the school should find the correct support for the child because there is a potential drug user problem with that child. Children who have challenges with other substances, like alcohol, are not excluded so readily, but support is organised for them and their family to deal with the misuse. This should be the same for drug misuse.
Crying Sons, Gwenton’s organisation who also supports young people who come to notice of the police.
He explained the problem we have with children being arrested for possession of cannabis is dependent on where they are arrested. If a young person is stopped and found in possession of cannabis in Lewisham, because Lewisham is a pilot borough for dealing with cannabis possession more leniently, that same child would be treated differently if they were arrested across the road by a Southwark police officer.
A Child arrested for cannabis in Southwark or any borough not part of a pilot scheme, would potentially mean the child would be criminalised and any furture life chances would be disrupted or permanently derailed. All boroughs should adopt the same approach with regard to child cannabis possession, and offer support in the first instance for young children.
I explained, in a number of custody suites any young person arrested for drug possession would be referred to a drugs worker who would speak with them. Depending on what is gleaned from the conversation, the drugs worker would look at external support for the young person.
If the child is brought before a magistrate, it is often decided that seeking drugs support and completing a programme would not result in the child being prosecuted and thus being criminalised.
I witnessed this with a young person arrested for cannabis and meth, because his parents were able to pay for private residential child rehabilitation, he avoided a conviction.
Gwenton said, having those interactions in the police station is important as this is often the time children disclose they are being exploited.
Gwenton also raised concerns around the NRM, National Referral Mechanism, and spoke about how this system is being exploited by parents, young people and the legal profession.
The NRM first came into operation in 2009, its aim was to protect people who were being trafficked across countries. Now it covers anything related to trafficking including criminal exploitation.
He states, I have witnessed young people who have been arrested and supported under the NRM, I have seen parents requesting their child to be supported under the NRM.
On one occasion I saw a young person brought into custody for possession of drugs and a knife, and under the NRM all charges were dropped. I have also seen legal counsel use this as a tool to push for the acquittal of young people arrested for various offences. Sadly sometimes the wrong people benefit from what is becoming a loophole.
When I prompted Gwenton on the role of parents in this growing trend of child exploitation he said, parents have a lot to do in distracting their child from exploitation. Already we are hearing about parents who need money pushing their children into trapping, selling drugs for adult groomers. We need community training to help parents understand that selling drugs can lead to murder,,,selling drugs can lead to child exploitation related extortion,, and selling drugs can also be the reason why children go missing.
Many stabbings which are happening across the country are more often related to exploitation and drugs. Parents need to understand by turning a blind eye to their child selling drugs, they could pay the biggest price,, a loss of their child to murder.
In the opening of the article, I alluded to the complexities of the groomer and the exploiters behaviour. Gwenton explained, these people do not just groom children for drug selling, they also groom them for robbery, violence and theft. Some of these children become multi-skilled in these criminal acts. To break this cycle of child exploitation, the government needs to invest in programmes specifically designed to address these deep-rooted issues.
I am aware of some of the programmes you run and have been running for number of years. The work of Dr Claudine Duberry and taking positive steps. The bleed control education curriculum, which is working with children in classrooms, teaching them about the human body and how simple it is to cause a catastrophic bleed.
What more can be done?
The government needs to divert some of the costs associated with a murder and focus on community intervention, we would save millions and save lives.
The shocking impact exploitation has on children is unimaginable, when we think we understand and are beginning to address it, a new branch emerges even more devastating than the last. Working together for change, and talking with the victims to really understand the problem, is part of the solution. Seeking advice and expertise from people like Gwenton Sloley, not just because he has a lived experience of this epidemic but because he will tell us all what we need to know and how the mind of these deplorable people work.
Gwenton Sloley will be talking about his life, his work, his successes and his losses, in a full-length article in Innovate Magazine this July