Mother describes agony of watching her child, 14, being groomed by drug dealers

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

Last year ITV News revealed a leaked Home Office document showing the government knows about, but isn't yet sure quite how to deal with, the issue of county lines.

"County lines" is how drug dealers have reinvented, and perhaps reinvigorated, drug dealing in Britain.

They now groom children to work as their drug mules, sending them out from the UK's cities to more rural areas where they then sell drugs. The children are crossing 'county lines', hence the name.

The virtue of using children in this way is that children are less likely to arouse the suspicion of the police. Even if caught, they will get less punishment.

The Home Office document obtained by ITV News showed the government now believes the problem to affect nearly all police forces in the country.

The groomed children are often targeted for being vulnerable or at risk - perhaps they attend a pupil referral unit or live in a children's home.

After being plied with gifts - such as new trainers and clothes - they are asked to run drugs in return.

Today ITV News speaks to one mother about the agony and frustration of watching your child descend into this world.

Hannah - who is not using her real name to protect her family's identities - describes how little you can do about the grooming and how the authorities appear almost powerless to help.

Hannah has been in a three year fight to pull her 14-year-old son Thomas - also not his real name - out of the lure of a drug gang. She describes a "race against time" before he gets to the fast-approaching age where he will be imprisoned.

Today Hannah tells how Thomas was a gifted student at one of the country's top grammar schools in the Home Counties.

Three years ago, he went missing for eight days and then began an extended ordeal for his family.

Thomas was eventually found in the company of adult gang members whom the police said were known to be extremely violent.

The police said they believed Thomas had been "groomed". Two child abduction orders have been served and when referred to the National Referral Mechanism, the government's scheme for identifying victims of human trafficking, Thomas’s case came back with positive grounds for trafficking within the UK.

Despite evidence that Thomas had been exploited and in need of protection, the authorities have so far failed to extricate him from this world and in the more than two years since then, even though he lives in his family home, his mother tells us he has descended deeper into this world.

Since last summer, Hannah has reported her son missing 120 times.

She describes frequently lying awake at night until 4am, waiting for his return. She has found mobile phones in his possession and the police have confirmed to her that he is involved in selling drugs.

Hannah describes lying awake at night until 4am waiting for his return Credit: ITV News

Hannah said: "Because I know my son and I saw the change, it is clear that he has been influenced to do what he is doing.

"There is no doubt in my mind he has been groomed."

Thomas previously wanted to be a lawyer, but his mother has now given up hope of him even taking his GCSEs this summer.

Her best hope, she now says, is for him to be criminalised and sent to prison because at least it will bring out in to the open who has drawn him into this criminal world.

Hannah said: "To get the evidence you are at out looking at getting your son criminalised. Because there is nowhere else to go.

"It is highly unlikely he is going to pass any of his exams. So it has literally gone from quite a rosy future for him, to doing everything I possibly can to make sure that he stays alive.

"He has witnessed things I will never see in my entire life."

Credit: ITV News

The government is concerned about the issue of "county lines" and after ITV News' report last year produced a change to legislation to crack down on the mobile phones which dealers use to sell drugs.

But many involved think it will not address the problem.

The problem involves drug dealers preying on young people. To gather evidence this has happened, the children would need to testify against the older gang members, often powerful people in their neighbourhood.

Hannah said: "They [police] are not able to move things on unless there is evidence of coercion, but it could be verbal coercion that the police aren't going to see...If you recognise that he has been groomed, then you have to recognise that testimony isn't going to come?"

She added: "There is something wrong if children or minors are treated the same by the police or other agencies as those who have groomed them. There is no distinction then between the adult and the child.

"It's groomers we need to be targeting to stop this."

Some like the Labour MP Ann Coffey are calling for a so-called Fagin order where anyone suspected of attempting to groom a minor would be slapped with an order, before the grooming progressed further.

The virtue of this would be to prevent the child being sucked into the gang world. Once the child gets drawn into drug dealing, it is very hard for the police to prove that a child was forced to run drugs.

Some of these children do indeed start as victims of coercion but come to embrace their new life. Others may plan to get out but then find it is too late.

Other critics would like a new law of Child Criminal Exploitation to mirror that introduced recently to deal with Child Sexual Exploitation.

This would be targeted at the adult gang leaders and could see them convicted of "child exploitation", something its advocates say could shame the drug dealers into stopping the practice.

Indeed, Cressida Dick, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, linked the two issues together in recent comments.

The government is reluctant to introduce much new legislation, but equally it wants to tackle this issue. As more and more parents speak out, the government may eventually have to reach out for a stronger response.

Sarah Newton, Minister for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism, said that they were taking active steps alongside police to tackle criminal exploitation on children in a statement.