Burgers and coats: county lines gangs exploit hardship to recruit UK kids – The Guardian

Headteachers report that drug groups are using the cost of living crisis to groom cold and hungry pupils
Criminals are using burgers and warm coats to recruit hungry, cold children into “county lines” gangs in towns and cities across the UK, experts are warning.
Headteachers across the country say that the cost of living crisis is leading to increasing numbers of pupils being groomed by sophisticated gangs to run drugs from one city to other parts of the country.
With cuts to youth support and other public services in local areas, and problems recruiting enough school support staff due to low pay, many say they are fighting a losing battle to keep vulnerable children safe outside school.
Sara Cunningham, director of Diversify, a charity based in Rotherham which runs anti-grooming workshops in schools across the UK, told the Observer: “You’ve got children whose families can’t afford school meals, and they are outside, hungry and cold. Someone in nice trainers turns up and gets them a burger or a warm coat. That’s often how they are being recruited.”
Cunningham says many schools have cut back on the number of staff on playground duty at lunchtime due to financial pressures, so gangs can approach young people then. Her charity has photos of gang members passing packages through school fences during lunch break.
She added: “School picking-up time is very dangerous. Right now, many parents are having to work longer hours and they aren’t around after school. That’s when a gang member is outside the school gates or the takeaway.”
“Every school we go into, whether it’s in rural Sussex or a city like Hull, says that county lines are a problem.”
She has a team of 12 volunteers who were themselves recruited into gangs, and who talk to schoolchildren about how free gifts “quickly become a very dark world”.
One of her team has scars on her arms from being attacked with a machete. She witnessed the murder of a friend, someone died from taking heroin that she delivered, and she eventually had to buy her way out of the gang.
Joe Caluori, head of research and policy at crime and justice consultancy Crest, and an expert on county lines, said that “sophisticated” gangs, operating from places like Merseyside, are reaping the benefits of depleted public services across the country, including cuts to youth support services in local areas, adolescent support teams in local authorities, and school support services.
“They target hopeless, poverty-stricken places like the Medway towns in Kent,” he said. “It’s really easy to groom young people in these places, which are public service deserts.”
He added that the police and children’s services in areas outside big cities typically have neither sufficient funding nor experience to deal effectively with gangs or violence.
“Gangs advertise on social media, where young people are looking for opportunities to make money. A lot of this is happening completely invisibly away from parents and social services.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said that a recent meeting of heads in the north of England, which he expected to focus mainly on the current funding crisis inside schools, was instead dominated by fears about county lines gangs and “life outside school unraveling”. “One head told us that kids are hungry, and if you offer them free food they will take it and end up delivering drugs for you.” He added that county lines exploitation is “rife” in rural areas, where there is less support available from cash-strapped social services and police.
His union is concerned that vulnerable pupils are now more likely to become disengaged because schools across the country are struggling to recruit and hold on to pastoral and support staff due to low pay. Heads across the country are planning to cut more support staff to tackle enormous deficits, which many say won’t be plugged by Jeremy Hunt’s announcement of £2.3bn extra funding a year for two years in last month’s autumn statement.
“Schools have tried their best to employ people to keep kids on the margins engaged and stop them being excluded. But now there are fewer and fewer of these support staff,” he said.
The head of a secondary school in North Yorkshire, who asked not to be named, said: “At meetings locally, I hear about young people being threatened or bundled into cars at the weekend. Every school will have young people who have been the victim of some violence or criminal activity related to county lines.”
The head worries that children in her leafy local area are vulnerable to exploitation by these gangs because they aren’t streetwise, there isn’t much to do outside school, and many of their families are really struggling to afford food, bills and heating.
“If there is lots of extra stress at home, young people will go anywhere for comfort. In my experience, young people get involved in crime and drugs because they feel unhappy or isolated or unloved.”
She added that in rural areas like hers it is much harder to get support from social services. “The general public would be shocked at how high the threshold has to be before you get help with a young person you are worried about.”
Shay Doyle (not his real name), who has written a new book about his years as an undercover police officer infiltrating organised crime in Manchester, said: “These gangs see children as expendable commodities. Given the cost of living crisis, there are many more children who are vulnerable to these wicked individuals.”
He added: “The grooming process can vary. One kid might be won over by a burger, another by expensive trainers. Some just want to hang out with the bad guys and feel protected.”
He warned that many schools don’t want to acknowledge that they have a gang problem or pupils dealing drugs. “There should be compulsory training on county lines for all teachers and support staff. The threat to children is so high now.”


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