Ever since he was a little kid, 16-year-old Adam* loved gangster movies. The glamour of the lifestyle – the money, the cars, the respect – all appealed to him. When a gang from a nearby city expanded its drug-selling operation to his neighbourhood, it sucked him in by promising to make those dreams come true. But the reality was very different.
One day Adam was robbed of drugs and money on the street. He barely slept for 13 days in a bid to earn it back because he didn’t want the person he was working for to “look down” on him. Later, he was beaten up so badly he ended up in hospital with life-changing injuries. As Adam says now, he wasn’t a gangster, just a young kid from Shropshire.
The coronavirus outbreak has put entire industries, from restaurants to air travel, on standby, paused at the flick of a switch. But the drug market is often more resilient than its legitimate counterparts. Where there’s demand there’s supply. County lines dealing is still happening and young people like Adam are still being exploited.
At We Are With You, a charity that supports young people in Shropshire affected by drugs and alcohol, we are hearing increasing reports of younger children being exploited to sell drugs during the lockdown.
Exploited 16- and 17-year-olds are now often known to the police, and with fewer people out on the streets, it’s hard for them to remain inconspicuous. In their place are children as young as 13, often driving around with older men, and jumping out to run drugs or deliver money. These young people don’t know they are being taken advantage of. They think the older guys are their friends. In an increasingly uncertain world, they crave the security that these powerful alliances bring, not knowing the trauma that awaits them further down the line.
The main focus of the government’s response to county lines has been arresting gang members, trying to deter the activity with the threat of harsh sentences. But this leads gangs to recruit younger people, as a way of shielding themselves. Former Durham chief constable Mike Barton recently pointed out that while the police use undercover cops and double agents, the drug dealers know they don’t employ children of 13 or 14 – so that’s who they recruit to do their bidding. We are witnessing cycles of exploitation, with the 16- to 17-year-olds who were exploited by older gang members now themselves recruiting younger people.
Lockdown has accelerated this process, but while this is deeply concerning, it also tells us a lot about how to break the cycle.
Exploitation breeds in an absence of hope. Most young people have been off school for weeks, and many are unsure what the future holds. They don’t know whether their college places will fall through, whether they might have to repeat the school year, or whether they will be able to see their friends again. These uncertainties can easily cloud young minds.
But this absence of hope didn’t start with the lockdown. According to analysis by the YMCA, spending on youth services has fallen by 70% in real terms since 2010, resulting in the loss of 750 youth centres and more than 4,500 youth workers. At the same time, cuts to education budgets, the increase in tuition fees and an expensive, insecure housing market have left many young people feeling lost.
We very rarely hear the young people we work with say they want to be the biggest dealer in the area. We don’t limit ourselves to discussing their drug use or dealing. Instead we ask them about their ambitions. They almost always talk about going to college or university, or doing a course and getting a good job.
Once we’ve developed trust, we look at different areas that affect them. They may be struggling in school or there may be issues at home. We don’t work to a time limit. Their journey is defined by them at their own speed, with their worker at their side every step of the way. This is the most effective style of support. But increasingly I see young people ferried from one stretched service to another until they inevitably fall through the cracks.
We worked with Adam to help him sit his GCSEs. He is now looking forward to going to college and leaving the world of county lines behind. But there are thousands more young people out there who are being forced to lead a life they don’t want.
When we emerge from this pandemic and start moving back towards normality we need to learn from past mistakes and start investing in our young people again.
Hope is the most powerful weapon against exploitation.
*Name has been changed
Sonya Jones is a service manager and safeguarding lead at We Are With You. You can support its coronavirus appeal here. If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know you can talk to a trained adviser via the charity’s online webchat