by David Jones
Frank was 15 and earning up to £1,000 a day selling crack cocaine, and as he told me, “I couldn’t believe I was making such easy money. Life was rosy.” And then suddenly it wasn’t. After crossing a member of the gang he’d been enticed to join with the promise of “more cash than you’ve ever seen”, Frank’s life was in danger.
A dealer in his small home town for a county lines network – whereby inner-city gangs distribute class A drugs to provincial areas – Frank admitted he got greedy, mentioning “lost drugs and money owed”.
The gang threatened him, telling him he had to make amends, and he and his family were advised by the police that they should move away from the area for their safety.
Before he joined the gang which later threatened him, Frank matched the template of what has become known colloquially as “pinball kids”, namely, he had been shunted around children’s homes and from schools to pupil referral units, which had made him easy prey for the gang who groomed and recruited him.
As Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner said recently: “Too many of these children are living unstable lives, particularly children entering care in their early teens. This puts them at greater risk of falling through the gaps in the school system and opens them up to exploitation by gangs or to abuse.”
Frank was 16 when he came into our residential children’s home as a result of gang involvement, and during his 18 months in the home his ‘honeymoon period,’ when kids generally toe the line, was short-lived. Staff soon realised that given his gang involvement, his absences were posing us serious challenges in terms of maintaining our duty of care to him.
He would stay in bed until mid-afternoon, leave the home and not return until around 5am, a cycle that repeated itself daily. We checked with his family and knew Frank wasn’t spending time with them. Then one evening we discovered that he had a second mobile phone containing names that weren’t family or friends, and concluded (correctly) that he was dealing again.
After his first arrest by the police, Frank told me how he enjoyed the buzz of selling drugs, how buyers were easy to find and that he never felt at risk. I reminded him of his experience before he came to the home and the dangerous situation he put himself and his family in, but he appeared oblivious to what I was saying. “It will be OK,” he insisted.
Numerous similar conversations I and other staff tried to have with him met the same dead end. Following his second arrest, Frank was moved from the home and we never learned of his next destination.
‘Too much violence’
Bill, now 22, is a former gang member who was also involved in a county lines operation, and when I tell him of Frank’s experience, he sees similarities, before briefly recounting his own gang involvement. “I’d seen too much violence, too many stabbings, and I wanted out. Eventually I managed to leave my local borough with the help of family who lived elsewhere, but I still watch my back.”
“Gangs don’t like losing you as you’re easy pickings, dealing and earning money for them. You belong to them and when I stopped dealing I was attacked and stabbed in my legs and arms as a warning. Frank should also be watching his back.”
Bill was 16 when he escaped from the gang, and was already known to social services after he’d stopped attending school. He was eventually assigned a social worker but, he admitted, she was out of her depth. “She was nice enough but didn’t have a clue about gangs and the scale of the drug culture I was involved in. She couldn’t do anything to help me.”
This comes as no surprise to Dr Simon Harding, a professor of criminology at the University of West London. “Social services and youth services aren’t being trained in this area and so a major part of the jigsaw is missing. Children in their teens are being criminally exploited and these agencies need to learn this and recognise the signs. It’s essential if vulnerable kids at risk are to be safeguarded.”
“But I’ve found much confusion over the sharing of information between agencies, particularly between social services and the police, who quite frankly don’t share enough.”
Harding points to the recent serious case review conducted by Newham local safeguarding children board, that found social workers failed to respond to growing risks prior to the drug-related gang killing of 14-year-old Corey Junior Davis. Among a number of failures to share data, a police recommendation that Corey and his family be relocated for their safety was overlooked.
This is something Harding links to a deeper and long-standing malaise. “I worked in community safety for 25 years, and tens of thousands of professionals were active on the ground dealing with domestic violence, hate crime, youth offending, drug and alcohol abuse, gangs and the night time economy.”
“We had crime analysts, regular partnership meetings, devised action plans and enjoyed community engagement, but it all vanished. Now communities are dividing up and it’s a completely changed landscape.”
“The utter neglect shown by the coalition government and now the Tory government is a disgrace,” Harding argues. “Cuts and austerity resulting in 20,000 less police officers and 50,000 to 70,000 less experienced community safety personnel have resulted in the withering of community safety. In places like Croydon, Hackney and Tottenham, youth services have been stripped back and reduced to table tennis on a Tuesday evening. It’s useless.”
Harding currently works in Kent and six other counties dealing with the issue of county lines and has seen a staff of 50 decimated to just eight. “Partnership working is a statutory duty but it’s hanging by a thread,” he says.
“Knife crime and stabbings are going through the roof and nobody knows what data to share. This is happening everywhere but it needn’t be just about money. We need to bring in volunteers and sponsorship and get local stakeholders involved.”
Due to austerity, Harding believes that professionals are only being allowed to do the bare minimum and can’t extend the boundaries of their remit to adopt a more holistic, community-based approach. “I see no evidence of this.”
This in turn leads to another problem. “Everyone becomes beholden to the PCC (police and crime commissioners) whose only aim is enforcement, meaning other issues such as prevention become peripheral. This is nowhere near good enough.”
He says there needs to be more meaningful co-operation between agencies, lessening the need for police involvement as the first response.
A common refrain in these fractured times is that the police don’t do enough, as of course is the complaint that there aren’t enough of them. “It’s a scandal,” Harding says. “Because other agencies aren’t doing their jobs in areas such as mental health, to name just one example, the volume of work undertaken by the police is way too high. They are tasked with doing everything and anything.”
I ask Harding if he feels at all optimistic in such an unsettling climate. “No, because as a society we are 10 to 20 years behind where we should be. And I do sense darker times ahead for three reasons.”
“Firstly, the level of violence on our streets is shocking and shows no signs of abating. Secondly, the chronic and continued failure to address this through partnership working isn’t being tackled. And thirdly, there’s this phenomenon of what I call subterranean youth, who not only don’t play by the rules, but don’t care about the police. To them the police are both incidental and irrelevant.”
David Jones is a pseudonym. He works in a residential children’s home.