County lines drugs gangs: ‘He was first given drugs at 12 in a park’

ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker meets the parents of Ben Nelson Roux, 16, and Jade Hutchings, 18, who were exploited by county lines drug gangs

A coroner has written to the health secretary warning that the lack of drug treatment facilities for young people under 18 is putting lives at risk - "unless action is taken future deaths could occur."

The warning from Senior Coroner Jonathan Heath comes after the deaths of two teenagers in North Yorkshire and West Sussex.

Ben Nelson Roux, 16, and Jade Hutchings, 18, were exploited by county lines gangs, addicted to drugs and failed by social services.

They never met, but died within weeks of each other in 2020.

There are currently no residential rehabilitation facilities for under-18s with substance misuse issues in the UK, while spending on youth addiction services in England has been cut by 38% in real terms over the past decade.

Social workers have told ITV News they are fighting to keep vulnerable teenagers alive due to a chronic shortage of care and increasingly criminal exploitation.

'He was in a spiral of shame and he absolutely hated himself... Ben's dead and what the hell happened to him?'

Ben Nelson-Roux, from Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, began struggling with ADHD and anxiety from a young age. 

His mother Kate Roux said those vulnerabilities made him a target for county lines drugs gangs.

“He was a really vulnerable child who was exploited and manipulated,” she said.

“Ben was first given drugs in a park when he was 12. That’s abuse and that child should be treated as a victim and the support just isn’t there."

By 16, his addiction had spiralled from cannabis to class A drugs, and Ben was increasingly in debt and forced to transport and sell drugs far from home.

“He was trapped in a spiral of shame - self-harming and depressed. He was pacing the house constantly checking windows, thinking he’d seen somebody, constantly in a state of distress.”

Kate with Ben on the day of his birth.

A nationwide lack of treatment facilities for children with drug issues meant Ben was placed in an adult homeless hostel in Harrogate, accommodation the coroner said was "unsuitable" for a child.

While living there, Ben had told his social worker that he felt suicidal; he’d been assaulted, witnessed a stabbing and seen men inject themselves with Class A drugs.

His life spiralled out of control and on 8 April 2020, his mother found him dead in his hostel room.

12 different agencies, including social services, were involved in Ben’s care, but they ultimately failed to save him.  

At the inquest into Ben's death, the coroner said he couldn’t be sure drugs were to blame.

Ms Roux said the family will never really know what happened to Ben that day, but he never got the professional help he desperately needed.

Data analysed by ITV News shows:

  • Last year more than 11,000 young people were in treatment for alcohol and drug issues, an increase of 3% increase on the year before;

  • Nearly half, 46%, also had mental health problems, a rising trend since 2018;

  • Yet over the last decade, spending on youth addiction services in England has been cut by 38% in from £73.3m to £45.6m in real terms according to analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists;

  • An estimated 27,000 children are involved in county lines drugs gangs, with children as young as seven being recruited.

Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of our Child and Adolescent Faculty, Royal College of Psychiatrists says drastic funding cuts are preventing young people from accessing the treatment they need, and in some cases condemning them to a life of addiction.

'It's really urgent that we intervene early'

250 miles away in West Sussex, Jade Hutching’s mental health issues worsened during the pandemic as he felt increasingly isolated and frustrated.

The teenager described as "bright" and "doing well in school" turned to drugs and alcohol for an escape and was exploited by criminals.

At one point he was kidnapped and assaulted and between the age of 16 and 18 he went missing more than a dozen times.

His mother Beatrice Hutchings said not enough was done to inform her about the Police's county lines concerns, something she only found out about during the inquest into his death.

“Jade was really brave to ask for help, but each time he went to ask for help, he was just viewed as a troublesome black male with addiction problems. That's all what I noticed," Ms Hutchings told ITV News.

'I am 100% angry'

An inquest found a catalogue of failings by social services and missed opportunities to help Jade, which a coroner said mounted to neglect. 

He was referred to Reboot, a service to support vulnerable teens, but was later told there were no spaces available for his age group.

Social services had planned to meet with Jade every 20 days to assess his wellbeing, but five months before his death they prematurely removed him from their records.

He took his own life at 18.

“I wasn’t listened to. They could have done so much for Jade, but they closed his file. I am 100% angry,” Ms Hutchings said.

Jade Hutchings died as a teenager.

In response to our investigation, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “13 years of a conservative government has seen real neglect of mental health and support services for children, with devastating consequences.

"In this context, we are talking about children who have been groomed into criminal gangs running drugs across the country."

West Sussex County Council apologised for the level of service provided to Jade and said learnings from the case have already been made.

'13 years of Conservative government have seen real neglect'

Regarding Ben Nelson-Roux’s case, North Yorkshire Council said the hostel was a temporary last resort after a countywide search failed to find anything more suitable.

It added that Ben had received support with his drug use and was working with a substance misuse officer.

The Department of Health and Social Case must respond to the Coroner’s report by 18 May this year.

A government spokesperson said “We are investing a record £532 million into drug and alcohol treatment services through our 10-year drug strategy, which will support around 5,000 more young people with substance misuse issues."

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