ITV News presenter Julie Etchingham speaks to a victim of 'cuckooing' - a terrifying ordeal happening in every city in Britain estimated to be affecting thousands
Over the fifteen years I’ve been reporting on modern slavery, one thing never fails to shock: how this pernicious crime manifests itself in ever-changing ways.
How, in the hand of hardened criminals, the exploitation of the desperate and vulnerable has no limits.
Most of the focus on the issue in recent years has been on the trafficking and modern slavery of foreign nationals: Nigerians, Albanians, Vietnamese - tricked into travelling to Europe on the promise of a better future, some dying packed in lorries on the way - those who make it, finding their passports confiscated by their gang masters and put to work in appalling conditions.
But an alarming finding in the last annual government statistics of victims of modern slavery is that the largest group now represented is in fact British nationals.
The reason? The rise of ‘county lines’ drugs running.
Children and teenagers are the most high profile victims - coerced through brute fear and cash to traffic drugs from city to city.
The UK’s ground-breaking Modern Slavery Act of 2015 is increasingly used to secure prosecutions in these cases: the gangs not only prosecuted for drugs offences but for their exploitation and enslavement of others too.
But there is another facet of ‘county lines’ which is much harder to tackle.
You may not even have heard of it.
It’s called ‘cuckooing’ - the forced taking-over of someone’s home in order to use it as a cover for drugs operations and serious crime.
Unsurprisingly, it is the most vulnerable in our communities who are at greatest risk.
It is happening in every city in Britain and it’s thought thousands could be caught up in it.
After a drug dealer took over her home, he cut Susan's tongue with a Stanley knife because she 'spoke out of turn', promising to take the whole thing if it happened again
It happened to Susan - not her real name - a 52-year old grandmother and a recovering drug addict.
Susan was enslaved by a drugs dealer who got into her flat one summer’s night - installing not just himself but what she called his ‘little foot soldiers’ too. He made her life a living hell.
He threatened to harm her family if she told them and monitored all her calls. He made her sleep on the floor next to him while he slept on her sofa.
If she disobeyed him she would have her arms burned with cigarettes.
She could only speak with his permission. At one point he cut her tongue with a Stanley knife: saying the next time she spoke out of turn, he would cut it out.
And when he ate pizza she would get the crusts. She lost two stones in weight.
It is a hard story to listen to. She tells me the impact the cruelty had on her.
“You end up going numb - you just exist. You’re numb to everything around you. You’re not living -you’re existing them. These people - who are taking your life, exploiting it - are making money for themselves and making your life a living hell. For what? So they can have nice cars and nice clothes - while you’re half starved.”
It was a full year before Susan was rescued by the police after they had set up an operation to monitor the flat.
Forces across Britain have had to adapt their anti-drugs operations in the face of cuckooing: knowing that behind closed doors hide not only criminals but victims too.
We spent some time with North Yorkshire police who allowed us not only to see drugs raids but community policing where officers reach out to those who might be vulnerable to cuckooing. Carol Kirk - is a Detective Chief Inspector with the force.
“All big towns and cities have an issue with county lines and cuckooing - the two go hand in hand”, she tells us. “ The main this is that it is the exploitation of very vulnerable people, and I take that really seriously.”
“But it’s not just about these vulnerable people who absolutely need our help and protection, it’s about working hard to get the people at the top of the tree who are the exploiters and taking them into the judicial system”
But that’s where things can get difficult. Because cuckooing isn’t a specific criminal offence under the Modern Slavery Act.
You can be prosecuted if, after taking over someone’s home, you coerce them into drugs running or another criminal activity but not simply for taking over a property.
It means not only is the practice often going unrecognised in law, it also means data on cuckooing isn’t routinely recorded.
A snapshot of its prevalence did come in a special week of crackdowns against county lines last year with nearly 800 addresses deemed to have been ‘cuckooed’ across Britain.
Campaigners and charities which support victims of cuckooing say it’s time the law changed and are urging the government to make cuckooing a criminal offence in its forthcoming Modern Slavery Bill.
Christian Guy is the CEO of Justice and Care - the charity which is supporting Susan and many others who are British victims of modern slavery. They are campaigning for a change in the law.
“It’s very hard to understand what’s happening right now beyond the anecdotal cases - we contacted 43 forces - only 7 gave us data on cuckooing.”
“Cuckooing is absolute torture. The safest place you should have is a home. And for many people who are experiencing cuckooing, their homes become hell on earth. They’re tortured - they’re abused physically, sexually, mentally. They’re kept as slaves in their own home behind their front doors.”
Susan now has her freedom back but her life will be forever marked by her experience. She’s determined to use her voice to speak up for those who are trapped right now. And she wants her story to be a wake up call for anyone who doubts slavery is happening in Britain.
“Open your eyes - take off the blinkers” she says. “It’s happening everywhere around you.”
“It’s taking over their minds, their lives - everything”
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
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