LONDON - In parts of Britain, thousands of children have fallen victim to so-called "county lines," drug networks run by gangs, with many forced to sell drugs in small towns and rural areas. Helping affected children in the $600 million illegal narcotics industry is a long and difficult process.
Officials estimate that some 46,000 children are involved with gangs across Britain, and many of them are exploited through drug networks and routes termed "county lines."
The children are groomed and forced to travel across the country to sell heroin and crack cocaine, using dedicated mobile phone lines.
The children exploited through the "county lines" witness a lot of violence and intimidation.
Tamsin Gregory works with the St. Giles Trust, an organization that offers support to youngsters who have been affected by "county lines."
Gregory says it is common to see post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD among the young people they work with.
"It takes a lot of care and kindness, and non-judgmental support to help young people overcome those kinds of experiences," Gregory said. "And it's not a quick process. What we often find is that young people, they don't stop their ‘county lines’ activity overnight. So they will reduce it over a period of time. And then eventually over maybe a period of a year or so we can help them fully accept that lifestyle and put them back in touch with things such as helping them get back into education.”
"County lines" have been around for a long time, but the number of people involved in selling drugs in rural areas has grown in recent years. There are currently about 2,000 operational "county lines."
Anton Noble was a gang member as a teenager. Although not personally involved in "county lines," he witnessed it. After almost ending up in jail, he says he turned his life around.
Noble founded the organization Guiding Young Minds in 2018 to warn young people in Britain about the dangers of gangs and "county lines."
"This generation they’re ain’t no level, they’ll go to any level," Noble said. "They'll go to four-year-olds, they’ll go to six-year-olds, they’ll do anything just to move their product. It’s not a gang anymore, it’s a business. Money is the motive but obviously I educated the kids to say to them money don’t make you happy.”
While its mostly vulnerable youngsters who end up being exploited, children from a variety of backgrounds are targeted. The children are victims but often end up in the criminal system for selling drugs or committing violent acts.
Noble says he has seen through his work as a youth mentor that it takes time to connect with young people and change their mindset. He says the root causes of the drug epidemic must first be address.
If you take a drug runner off the road, it replaces itself, it’s a business," Noble said. "But if you take the root out, it's gone. It won't grow again.”
The British government announced it would spend nearly $33 million to tackle drug networks, mostly through strengthening law enforcement.
Critics of that approach note that austerity policies in the last decade have led to thousands of British police and social workers losing their jobs, and the closing of hundreds of youth centers across the country.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this month he wanted "county lines" to be stopped because “they are killing our children.”