SAT helplessly at home, Jenny* tried to cling to the hope that her 15-year-old son was okay – three weeks after he’d gone missing without a word.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, but while her son fortunately returned home safe, Jenny’s hellish ordeal was far from over.
The terrified mum was told by police last year that her bright and thoughtful teen was likely being groomed by an organised crime group to go ‘up country’ and sell drugs.
Sure enough, in the months that followed, Robbie, whose name – and that of his mum – has been changed to protect his identity, was found carrying Class A drugs and charged with intent to supply.
Worryingly, what happened to him is just one example of how gangs can lure kids out of school and into danger.
During the pandemic, there are fears this has spiked even more – with kids at risk of being dragged into a life of crime following lockdown.
Teachers have reported that many teenagers haven’t returned to class this term – forcing them to spend hours phoning their parents and even doing home visits to try and find them.
According to official government figures, around 88 per cent of pupils in state-funded schools were in attendance on September 10.
That’s far lower than the usual 95 per cent seen last year – although that figure only included pupils aged 5-15, whereas the 88 per cent takes into account pupils of all ages, including school-based nurseries.
‘Lost generation’ of kids
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is warning that Covid could lead to a “lost generation” of kids and tells Sun Online: “Even before the lockdown, 1 in 25 teenagers in England were falling through gaps in the school or social services systems.
“This puts them at increased risk of unemployment or of exploitation by gangs and organised criminals.
“It is good news that 9 out of 10 children are back in school, but I am concerned that some older children have dropped off the radar.”
It’s a concern shared by charity The Children’s Society, who have heard reports of many teens not returning to class.
Becky Fedia, national programme manager for the charity’s National Disrupting Exploitation programme, says: “Missing school can be a sign that children are being subjected to horrific exploitation, which can involve county lines drug dealing."
Last year, devastated mum Karla opened up about her own horrifying experience, as she appeared in Channel 4 documentary Britain's Child Drug Runners.
Her son Jacob was lured in by evil drug barons at the age of 13 to sell Class A drugs for county lines gangs. He was later tragically found dead on his bed at home.
Karla said she believes her boy took his own life while secretly suffering "absolute turmoil" over his exploitation.
"I definitely blame county lines – 100 per cent" she exclusively told Sun Online.
"Jacob would at times get upset but he'd never tell you too much. He'd always deny he was doing it and accuse me of watching too much TV. He got himself in so deep he couldn't get out."
Now, Becky says many criminals groom kids with “offers of easy cash, drugs, alcohol, friendships and the false promise of a life of a glamour”.
Once reeled in, these kids can then be threatened with violence and demands for them to repay ‘debts’.
“Even if a child not in school isn’t being exploited right now, being away from the classroom might leave them feeling more isolated, socialising less with friends and not feeling able to contact teachers for help,” she adds.
“All these things may mean they are more likely to go missing from home or care and be targeted by criminals who we know look to take advantage of the most vulnerable children.”
‘I didn’t know whether he was dead or alive’
No one understands the terrifying impact of this phenomenon more than British mum Jenny, who watched as her bright son Robbie – whose case predates the pandemic – became withdrawn and silent in just a few months.
Robbie had always loved school and spending time with his friends, so when his behaviour began to deteriorate, Jenny assumed he was just going through an awkward age.
He was eventually caught shoplifting at a local supermarket, before disappearing for three weeks without a word to his terrified mum.
“It’s the worst thing. It felt like I was losing my son. I didn’t know whether he was dead or alive,” she says.
When he eventually came home, he wouldn’t talk about where he had been and police suspected he was being groomed by an organised crime group.
“Throughout this time, I lost myself, the thought of my son in places no child should be, my mind would wander and my imagination would take me to the coldest, darkest drug dens,” she says.
Jenny made the difficult decision to leave her home and job when Robbie returned, to focus all her energy on helping him, but he continued to get dragged into the dark world.
She was devastated when he was found carrying Class A drugs in another city in summer 2019, and taken to a police station 75 miles away from home.
It later emerged he had been running cannabis, heroin, crack and cocaine.
What is the county lines child exploitation scandal and how are children being groomed?
COUNTY lines is a sinister drug running technique that gangs are using to sell drugs in other towns by exploiting kids and vulnerable adults.
The dealing technique uses young people or vulnerable adults to carry and sell drugs across county boundaries using dedicated mobile phone hotlines.
The advantage to dealers is they can sell drugs outside the area they live in – often impoverished towns – and therefore reduce the risk of getting caught.
A criminal group may also target a vulnerable person living in an area outside of London and other major cities and take over their home as a base to sell drugs from.
Boys aged 14-17 are the most often targeted, however girls can also be exploited, often starting a relationship with a gang member that can lead to sexual and domestic violence.
Adults who are drug addicts or have learning difficulties are also targeted.
Signs to look out for that someone is involved in County Lines activity:
- Returning home late, staying out all night or going missing
- Being found in areas away from home
- Increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
- Being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
- Unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
- Unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewellery
- Increasingly disruptive or aggressive behaviour
- Using sexual, drug-related or violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know
- Coming home with injuries or looking particularly dishevelled
- Having hotel cards or keys to unknown places
Source: Children's Society
However, when he was charged he remained silent throughout, terrified that the people he’d been caught up with would punish him if he spoke to police.
Even with all of the evidence to say her son was being exploited and threatened with violence, the CPS decided to prosecute.
The stress of the impending trial became too much and Jenny began to have thoughts about ending her life.
After searching for help, she contacted The Children’s Society, where she was referred to a specialist programme which supports parents whose children are being criminally exploited.
“Before this happened, I knew absolutely not one thing. I was really angry when I found out that this was actually happening to children. It takes me back a bit, just thinking about all the signs that I missed and, if I’d known about them, would I have caught on?” she says.
After an ongoing fight to attest that Robbie was a victim of child trafficking and exploitation, the judge eventually cleared him of all charges.
I was really angry when I found out that this was actually happening to children. It takes me back a bit, just thinking about all the signs that I missed.
Now, Robbie is safe at home with his family again. He has a job and is thrilled to have passed his GCSEs, but still isn’t able to talk about what happened to him.
‘Many have just given up'
Steve Chalke is founder and leader of The Oasis Trust, which runs 53 schools across the country.
He has heard reports from both teachers and students of some kids not returning to class this year, but says the drop in his schools has been slightly less than others across the country – which he puts down to the work they do in the local communities.
“We run housing projects, food banks, debt advice centres, community centres,” he explains.
“We have all this community engagement, which creates a level of confidence."
He says that kids can be missing for a number of reasons – whether it’s their parents choosing to keep them at home over fears of the virus, or secondary school kids making the decision themselves.
A major issue has been the availability of equipment for some students during lockdown, creating a divide between those with the support and facilities they need, and those that haven’t had that.
“We’ve seen a 43 per cent growth in the numbers of vulnerable kids in our schools – kids with a child protection order or whose parents have been made unemployed and are therefore now on free school dinners. That’s across Covid alone," he says.
“I was talking to a 17-year-old kid in the Sixth Form in one of our schools last week who was saying to me, ‘I’ve just given up, I used to love working, I just struggle to motivate myself, what’s the point?’
“He comes from a very hard background, he’s seen some bad things happen to his friends in the past. He’s lost friends and knows all about gang life.
“His journey has been fantastic, he’s hugely intelligent, and since we took him under a pastoral wing he’s flown, but he’s had the stuffing knocked out of him now by this.
“He’s thinking, ‘what’s the point, he’s seen the unemployment, he’s saying, ‘we’re a lost generation’."
One teacher who has seen the scale of the issue first-hand is Ian Simpson, who works for Multi Academy Trust Oasis Community Learning. He is now executive principal of the Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey.
He says most of their students have returned this terms thanks to the work of their community hub teams, including unsung heroes like retired teacher Paul Murray who has been tireless visiting homes.
He adds: "[Paul] has and still is delivering food parcels, food vouchers and providing help and advice on a daily basis. We have ensured that all our vulnerable families have adequate food, are safe and their children have returned to school."
However, he adds: “As a father of Year 11 and Year 13 children, and a third year university student, I can see it as both a parent and principal.
"Without a shadow of doubt, the more time children, especially vulnerable children, have on their hands, the more likely they are to drop into antisocial behaviour and crime.
“More time will create boredom and that can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as a sense of isolation.
"This can lead to children spending longer on social media and the internet, perhaps looking at things online that might not be in the best interest of their wellbeing."
What can be done?
Steve and Ian are now pushing for more funding for community work and projects to help support vulnerable families and encourage them and their kids to remain a part of school life.
Steve says having the time to phone families repeatedly, to reassure them and the kids, is hugely important. And it’s something many schools don’t currently have capacity for.
Children’s Society’s Becky Fedia says: “Rather than rushing to exclude pupils we would urge schools to get to the bottom of any changes in children’s behaviour on the back of lockdown and help them access support if they need it.
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“Every child not in school should be given access to a named trusted professional. This should be someone who can ensure they get the support they need and identify any risks they may be facing.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Being in school is vital for young people’s education and wellbeing.”
They added: "Over 99 per cent of schools have been open every week since term began, with over 7.3 million pupils attending last week, including approximately 84 per cent of all vulnerable children.”
Contact the Samaritans
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article contact The Samaritans on 116 123. They are available for free at anytime.
Or email https://www.samaritans.org/
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
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