An ITV News investigation has uncovered how children as young as 12 are being ruthlessly groomed and exploited by organised crime groups who send them the length and breadth of the country to carry drugs and money.
ITV News has seen an internal Home Office document which describes this as a “new type of organised crime” that is “unreported”.
It also suggests the number of kids involved is “unrecorded”. And it contains a stark warning; suggesting that current government practice - including the inability of public services to work together - “might be making it easier for criminal gangs to exploit vulnerable people".
Speaking to ITV News, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield called for the same “mindset change” about these young adults being groomed to run drugs by gangs as that after child sex exploitation was uncovered across Britain in 2014.
We spoke to one 15-year-old boy, caught up in this dangerous world since the age of 13.
Daniel described how drug dealers groomed him, gave him gifts and made him feel part of their group.
“They’d pick me up around the corner from my house. They’d give me a lift to school and I’d get out and you just felt like you were important getting out of a nice big car."
“Anything I ever wanted I got given and I thought it was all for free," Daniel added.
But he soon realised they wanted something in return. They asked him to deliver shoeboxes of class A drugs and bags of pills, often having to travel long distances from home.
Daniel is still trying to escape this life.
And he’s not alone. We’ve discovered that young boys and girls are being sent out from major cities including Liverpool, London, Manchester and Birmingham to towns and coastal resorts right across Britain.
Others are directed from the capital to Winchester, Peterborough and towns along the south coast.
We heard of boys being sent from Manchester to Aberdeen and Grimsby and teens from Liverpool turning up in Essex and Exeter. The police call it “county lines", the children call it “going country”.
Home Office documents seen by ITV News describe it a “new type of organised crime” that is “unreported” and “unrecorded”. The department said the number of kids involved is “unrecorded” but our research suggests it runs into thousands.
Stephen Moore, a former senior detective at Merseyside Police and an expert in organised crime, says the drug syndicates see this as a business and children represent cheap labour, easy to exploit and easy to replace if anything happens to them.
“This is like mill owners using kids in Victorian times or sending kids down mines - cheap, easily replaceable labour, " Mr Moore said.
The gangs prey on school children but the Home Office documents warn they particularly target vulnerable young people from children’s care homes, or those who have been excluded from mainstream education.
It’s a growing problem. In just one small area of Essex around Clacton-on-Sea, police say there are as many as 19 ‘county lines’ running from Liverpool, London and Manchester.
Caroline Shearer runs the charity Only Cowards Carry, which works with young people to keep them safe.
"Once a child is in a drug ring it's very hard to get out," she told ITV News.
Really there's three ways. You can run away and hope that nobody ever finds you. You can go to prison, which is probably the best bet to help you get out of it, unfortunately. You can die because you will not get out of it. And unfortunately this is something that most people don't understand.
Experts think many of the children who go missing every year in this country may have actually have "gone country". In one London borough, Lewisham, the local authority believes half of its missing children have been groomed to carry drugs.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said there are parallels with child sexual exploitation and action is urgently needed to protect boys and girls.
“I think as a country we have had a very serious and overdue wake-up call about child sexual exploitation and saw that very starkly in areas such as Rotherham," she said.
"There are youngsters involved in gangs who are in every other sense being groomed into that situation and being exploited and if we are going to protect them and prevent them being in those gangs and coming to harm we need that same scale of mindset change about them.”
It appears the UK’s drug trade has reinvented itself, expanding from inner cities to parts of the new country and exploiting children has allowed it to do this without detection.
In January we announced our Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation approach, which includes specific action to tackle county lines, protect vulnerable locations and safeguard gang-associated women and girls. The National Crime Agency published its first threat assessment of ‘County Lines’ in August 2015 and is working closely with the National Policing Lead for Gangs to ensure there is a national, coordinated response from law enforcement.