Children enslaved in county line crime after tip offs from gang masters

Children who have become enslaved in county line crime after tip offs to police from their own gang masters ‘chills the blood’, Essex Police detectives say.

It comes as the force recorded a quadrupling in the number of children under the age of 16 arrested for drug dealing.

In 2017, there were 15 arrests of children under the age of 16 for supplying controlled substances. That leapt to 56 in 2020 before falling slightly to 53 in 2021.

But many are now seen as victims of modern day slavery. In a method to unsure they are controlled by gangs- that a senior Essex Police officer says “chills the blood” – children are now being held hostage in gangs as modern day slaves in what is described as “debt bondage”.

This often comes after being arrested from information that could have come from gangs themselves.

It is the relatively new dimension of children being enslaved into debt bondage – often after being informed against by their own gang masters – that has given the network of criminal drug lines a particularly sinister dimension.

Detective Inspector James Healy, who works principally in the force’s serious violence unit to pursue drug dealers, said police are now more focused on tackling what is now seen as a form of modern day slavery – for which the courts are increasingly prosecuting criminals higher up the network.

He added safeguarding activities around diverting people away from gangs and keeping them permanently away saves lives.

DI Healy said: “I would say that one of the drivers behind that uptick is a reflection the dedication and determination around tackling county lines in this way and a recognition that what we are now focused on.”

He added: “We are all very firmly focused on not just actually getting out there to disrupt these county lines and putting people behind bars, as effective as that is, it is that exploitation bit as well and that work is really important.

“Because that is genuinely about homicide prevention. Those people you are seeing murdered up and down the country are the sort of people our early intervention are diverting from that world.

“Because they would have been very vulnerable, they would have been more and more drawn into it and their lives end up ending in the middle of a street.”

DI James Healy and DS Mark Ghosh

A common feature of county lines is the exploitation of children and young people. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual.

Those held in debt bondage may be made to run or deal drugs for free to ‘repay’ the debt incurred when drugs or cash are seized by police in an arrest that could have been initiated from a tip off from the gang itself.

DI Healy said: “It chills the blood, but the information coming to us could easily have been given to us from a criminal network – the same drug line – that that runner was working for.

“They were informing on that runner in order to make that person even more dependent on the drug line than they were before.

“They lost all the drugs, all the money they made and the person controlling them can say ‘you owe us £100 and you’ve lost all our drugs’.

“Well of course it was all part of the awful exploitation.”

He added: “You see that young people, vulnerable people, looked after children are being enticed into this world with promise of free trainers, cash and then they’re in and all those rewards they were getting at the beginning have gone and they are in debt bondage.”

DI Healy added it was that element that is now seen as a form of modern day slavery – and which police officers are keen to use in any prosecution of gang masters.

He added: “The great thing is what we are now seeing is rather than defendants being put before the court and being sentenced purely for drugs offences they are getting sentenced for exploitation of modern day slavery and what we are seeing is a significant increase in the average length of sentence.

“Going back a number of years the average sentence would be around nine months. Now the average length is three and a half years.”

Detective Sergeant Mark Ghosh is in charge of six officers focused purely on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults through the other elements of the force’s strategy to ‘protect’, ‘prevent’ and ‘prepare’.

This may involve ensuring the remand centre or prison knows whether any person is in debt bondage and the possibility of a member of the gang also being inside, safeguarding people who may have moved to Essex to escape gangs elsewhere and securing a property – going even as far as paying for anti-arson letter boxes.

And if people need to move out of the county, Essex Police will sign off the letter of authority to move them out of the county to a place of safety.

But they also aim to divert individuals away from crime into regular employment – they will buy equipment for them to do the job they have ended up getting and pay for courses such as forklift licences and other college courses.

DS Ghosh said: “It wasn’t long after the modern slavery act came into existence that we recognised that children and vulnerable adults being forced to deal drugs is a form of forced labour – ergo modern slavery and human trafficking.”

He now equates a sword and shield analogy to explain the message to young people in schools.

He added: “I describe this as a sword and shield approach. We have a sword team – the pursue aspect – and a shield team. That is how I explain that to schools that we are there to shield them from the criminality – to protect them – and we have a team that prosecutes.

“They don’t have to be involved in county lines for the team to help them. They can come to us at any time.”

As the country faces a worsening economic outlook with cost of living skyrocketing and energy bills expected to rise to more than £4,200 next year, officers are mindful of the extent vulnerable people may be even more exposed to criminal networks preying on their position.

DI Healy said: “If you are seeing young people as prey to that degree of criminal exploitation now, a year from now, when we are in a much more precarious economic situation, one can only imagine that the consequences of that will be seen in our world.”


Mick Ferris

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