This is the final part of a series by HuffPost UK about county lines drug dealing in Britain.
One afternoon in August 2018, two officers knocked on Abdi’s mum’s door and confirmed the worst: eight months after he had gone missing, her son’s body had been found.
“I’d routinely walk to a nearby creek just to see if his body would wash up there,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I would drop my children off at school then jump on buses, looking on the upper decks, to try and find him; I would stand by the window at home looking for him. I was on heightened alert. Any time I heard a siren I’d fear the worst.”
Abdi Ali was murdered in what is believed to be a drug dispute. He was 17.
“The first night my son didn’t come home, I didn’t eat or sleep well at all,” his mother told us, “which set the tone for the next eight months. I didn’t spend an hour of peace.”
She says the loss of her son has devastated her family. “If my children even look at Abdi’s old bedroom, to this date, they always cry,” she said.
Like many of the parents who spoke to HuffPost UK for this series, her nightmare started when her son’s behaviour began to change. Shortly before he went missing, Abdi was arrested because a shop owner told police he had been browsing through knives, something his mother said was completely out of character. On another occasion, he was arrested for carrying a sharp weapon.
But she maintains that, had the authorities done their jobs properly, the outcome would have been different.
It is the first time she has given an interview since her son’s killing. She has asked us not to use her real name as her family try to rebuild their lives.
“My boy, who had many things to look forward to – his life was cut short in the most horrific way.
“The police did a poor job. They were constantly at my house with questions. If they took the matter seriously and acted on it, Abdi would be alive today,” she said.
During the months that her son was missing, Abdi’s mum said the Met failed to contact the youth centre he was last seen visiting, and didn’t trace his mobile phone, which was still ringing days after he disappeared. Instead, they targeted his family.
She would pass information from the local community to the police about where her son might be, but she says these lines of enquiry were never explored.
Yet on one occasion, she says, dozens of officers stormed her house and searched it to the point where they broke furniture, “uprooting wardrobes and beds, throwing clothes on the floor”.
Extended family and friends had to organise a collection for them to buy new furniture. They didn’t file a complaint against the police for fear that it would negatively impact the investigation into Abdi’s disappearance.
A lack of confidence in the police prevented Abdi’s mum and her husband from reporting their son missing for two weeks. They had “no reason to suspect that he was in danger” and resolved not to “escalate” matters by involving the police.
The family struggles financially. Beds are still broken from the raid and a bathroom pipe that was cracked during the incident is still leaking, creating hazardous conditions including damp and slippery floors for Abdi’s sister, who lives with a serious health condition. The family say their landlord, L&Q, hasn’t helped and the family can’t afford to pay for it to be fixed.
A Met Police spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “As is standard in any missing person enquiry, a search of the family home was carried out. We have no record of any damage occurring or of a claim from the family for any repair at the time.”
A spokesperson for L&Q said the housing association had no record of a police raid causing damage at the property, but that workers had “attended the property on a number of occasions to investigate and rectify issues relating to heating and water leaks as they have been reported to us”.
L&Q says it will visit the house again this week to see what else needs doing.
Since her son’s death, no social workers have visited to check on the welfare of Abdi’s siblings and she’s had no contact from the Met Police’s victim support team. Enfield Council, the family’s local authority, declined to comment on “individual cases”.
Through grassroots north London charity Minority Matters, HuffPost UK has spoken to several mothers who have all echoed Abdi’s mum’s concerns about the police not taking their children’s disappearances seriously enough.
In some cases officers tell worried parents that, once a person is over the age of 18, they are classed as an adult meaning that they are prioritised below missing children who are deemed to be more vulnerable.
In other instances, when police officers do come into contact with young people who are dealing drugs, parents believe they don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation, or the fact that dealing is related to trafficking.
The police are not arresting the masterminds behind the county lines – just our kids who are stuck in this vicious cycleCarol Smith*
One mother, Carol Smith*, said when she reported her groomed 16-year-old to the police she was advised by officers not to be too harsh on him because he was “at that age”.
“When the children are vulnerable and police know that they are vulnerable, they are still harsh in the way that they treat them. As though they’re enemies,” one mother told HuffPost UK.
The surge in drug convictions and arrests – an increase of more than two-thirds in five years – has done little to quell county lines activity.
Smith said: “The police are not arresting the masterminds behind the county lines – just our kids who are stuck in this vicious cycle. They get caught, serve time, get out and are back in the same place because the environment is the same. The same people that groom and exploit are here.”
We put this to the Met Police’s deputy assistant commissioner Graham McNulty, who also leads the National Police Chiefs’ Council work on county lines.
He told us he could not comment on specific cases, saying the force had made good recent progress cracking down on drug trafficking networks. “I would never say we’re perfect,” he said, “and things do go wrong in policing but my officers now understand more about the symptoms of young people being groomed and exploited.”
Speaking to HuffPost UK, he said: “My view is, over the last year, we have absolutely put our focus on the line holders and the people at the top of this trade and I am determined that we are going to continue that and take more of them out in the year ahead – because of the abhorrent nature in which they exploit young and vulnerable people.”
McNulty, who was appointed as NPCC county lines lead in November 2019, said as well as focusing more on the line leaders at the root of gang activity, he had overseen better collaborative working between national police forces, and pushed for harsher penalties “so that people driving the lines started to feel the consequences of what they’re doing”.
The Met has arrested nearly 500 line holders and their associates, McNulty said. Against those 500, nearly 900 charges have been made – the vast majority for supply of drugs – while some 255 lines have been closed coming out of London.
“During the course of those operations, we’ve rescued 98 young or vulnerable people who were being exploited,” said McNulty. “We’ve also upped our focus on applying modern day slavery charges to line leaders and not just locking people up for drug dealing, so they feel the consequences of their behaviour for the abuse they’ve wreaked.
“The proof is in the pudding and of those arrests, you’ll appreciate that there’s a lot awaiting trial but 74 have gone to trial, they’ve all been convicted and 98% of them – which is a figure I’ve never seen before – pleaded guilty because of the weight of evidence against them. In 30 years of policing, I’ve never seen that.”
Angie Patterson* told HuffPost UK her family had been let down by social services after her son Oscar* was groomed at the age of 13. This was back in 2012, when county lines grooming wasn’t yet fully recognised as child exploitation.
“From the point of me raising concerns, none of the agencies such as St Giles Trust [a charity that assists vulnerable people] or social services around my son at that point were willing to take them seriously. Generally social services weren’t fit for purpose – they were accustomed to dealing with cases of parents not wanting their child, not children repeatedly going missing from home, missing school. The majority of social workers I came across weren’t interested and nobody was concerned why what was happening was happening.”
A St Giles Trust spokesperson said the charity has helped 966 children and young people “make a safe and sustained exit from county line exploitation or reduce their involvement in it” this year alone.
“This is complex work and it can take many years before positive progress occurs,” they added. “The journey itself is often rocky, with young people dipping in and out of county lines over time before they turn their life around. The vast number of families and young people we support feed back to us that their lives have been changed for the better as a result of our support.”
In one week, Patterson said she called the local missing people’s helpline – which was run by individual police forces at the time – at least 20 times to flag her son’s regular disappearances. The service has since been replaced by the Home Office-funded Missing People’s SafeCall service.
On one occasion, upon his return, she recalled how a social worker nonchalantly appeared to shrug off the issue and said: “Ah, at least he’s back now.”
Between his goings and comings, she began to find train tickets in the pockets of his laundry showing he had been to areas in Essex – miles away from their north London home. He even jumped out of his bedroom window to avoid confronting his mother after being called by county lines associates to leave the house.
“Each time he came back, you could really see the strain of heavy manipulation and control – the fear in his face,” she said. “On one occasion, he escaped from wherever he was and ran home. He stank – you could tell he hadn’t washed for days.
“My son was like a zombie. He wouldn’t speak to me, and we were close. Oscar was completely out of touch with reality – desensitised. Whatever threats he was facing, I can’t imagine.”
Oscar is now serving time in prison for drug-related charges after being assigned “at least 10” social workers in the space of eight years.
Tanya Mitchell’s* 20-year-old son Myles was excluded from school after police found him with a machete in his school bag, aged 16. The headteacher said “we don’t want thugs in our school,” she told HuffPost UK.
But she says son was never a thug – he had been groomed, something she began to suspect when Myles’ behaviour began to change drastically in his early teens.
She tried to tell his school this before they kicked him out.
“I contacted the school several times – via email and telephone – and suggested my son was being groomed. The response was: ‘Oh it’s fine, he hasn’t said anything’s wrong; if there’s a problem, I’m sure we can let social services know and they can deal with it,’” Mitchell explained.
The exclusion triggered a downwards spiral that led to a stabbing attack, an increase in disappearances, and, Mitchell suspects, sexual abuse.
“I think he was being sexually exploited and I understand that is quite common, even with boys, who are groomed,” Mitchell said.
“I’ve got no evidence but I think he was filmed or pictured in a compromising position and he was blackmailed. We only have one photograph of him since he was 14 – my son used to love being photographed but if I go anywhere near him with a camera, he just goes completely mad shouting: ‘Get that away from me.’
“The way he talks about men has changed. He became obsessed with paedophilia all of a sudden, started to come out with homophobic comments, which is not how he was raised at all.”
Now Myles is 20 years old. He is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the house in two years.
“It took me nearly two years to drill into the youth offending team that my son had been groomed.
“One officer said: ‘Well, he’s not said anything about modern slavery.’ Of course he’s not going to. They’re on another planet.
“Parents are blamed all the time – but we’re traumatised too.”
Professionals have said grooming gangs “scout for children perceived as being ‘naughty’”.
Cheryl Phoenix, executive director of The Black Child Agenda, supports children and families who face discrimination within the education system. Black children are three times as likely to be permanently excluded from school as white British pupils.
“County lines are the after-effect of what’s going on with the education system and the discrimination against and bullying of Black families in particular,” she said. “Black children are more likely to be excluded, so with that exclusion that means you have children on the streets. If they’re on the streets that means they’re easily accessible by these gangs. The majority of these young people on the road have been permanently excluded from schools.
“Gang leaders go as far as sexually abusing these children – boys and girls – and filming it, threatening to put it out in the public domain via social media if they don’t do as they’re told. This is very, very common. So it’s not like a lot of these kids are aggressive, violent animals as they’re described in the media. A lot of them are frightened little children who don’t know what to do or where to go for help.
“You’ll find that even in prisons there’s a disproportionate number of Black men whose needs weren’t met when they were at school and were left to languish in pupil referral units [PRUs – a type of school that caters for children who aren’t able to attend a mainstream school due to a need for greater support], where they’ve been groomed in gang life. PRUs are a sin bin where they dump children, leave them and forget about them.
“You have to look at the bigger picture: a lot of the PRUs are run by G4S security, which also runs a lot of prisons across the UK and works with social services. They took Black people out of chains [after slavery] but have they?”
Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. The 2017 Lammy Review of the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the UK justice system found Black people were 53% more likely to be sent to prison even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates.
Lammy concluded that the justice system was biased against this group, and required reform. While none of his recommendations have been implemented, the government has launched a £2.5bn programme to create 10,000 additional prison places.
McNulty said: “We know that crime doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some of our Black communities in London are impacted more by violence and drugs – I think that’s undisputable, the figures are there.
“That means it’s incumbent upon policing to absolutely make sure it works hard in those areas to deliver justice and it may well be the case that more young Black men are arrested for drugs but I’d like to reassure you that, in the county lines effort, our focus has been those at the top of the line.”
Aasmina’s* son Kieran* is currently serving a life prison sentence for a fatal stabbing over drugs in 2013, aged 26. She paid for the victim’s funeral and the two families, both Somali, made peace with one another.
Kieran had been groomed into county lines activity years earlier, at the age of 13, as was his victim.
Despite frequent disappearances, as is commonplace with children trapped in county lines, Aasmina said they were let down by the authorities. He was expelled from school for “acting out” and sent to a PRU where things quickly began to unravel.
“He attended school with my two other sons and teachers would make comments about him during parents evening, that he was ‘different’ to the other two. They alluded to Kieran’s mental health and learning difficulties – but didn’t specify and there was never any plan to support him,” she told HuffPost UK.
“There are challenges that come with education. When children start acting out, there’s no support given to them, nothing to fall back on – so when they drop out of school they fall into criminal behaviour. It started with my son refusing to go to the PRU – by then he already had outside friends.”
Kieran had always made it clear that he was a part of a gang and even said, aged 15, that he had “no choice” but to sell drugs. Aasmina explained that she tried her best to help her son, even offering to uproot the entire family and leave the UK.
“My son said he’s at the point of no return because he’s involved. ‘You guys don’t get it. It’s not just my life I’m scared for. If I don’t do what they want then they’ll come for you as well. So I do what I do to protect you.’ I felt terrible hearing him say that. It affected my emotional and mental wellbeing, I became depressed, I couldn’t sleep and started to isolate myself from friends and family. I couldn’t deal with the weight of it.”
In prison now, Kieran recently told his mother: “Please don’t think that I wasn’t hearing you guys when you said the gang is bad news and warning me about the path I was on. But what you guys didn’t understand is that I didn’t have a choice.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told HuffPost UK nearly £4m had been invested into City Hall’s “rescue and response” programme, working to intervene and support young people caught up in county lines, while 1,100 young Londoners have been referred for specialist support over the last two years – half of them under 18.
Khan told HuffPost UK: “Criminals and gangs have used the uncertainty created by Covid-19 to recruit disadvantaged young Londoners. We know that those running county lines have altered their dealing hours and locations to blend in with lockdown measures, and they have increasingly used social media to recruit young people, many of whom have lost their jobs and in some cases their homes.
“We’re only scratching the surface of a major national issue that is still driving violence in London and across the country.”
He is calling on the government to “reverse the damaging cuts to local and social services – many of which are on the front line in the battle to tackle this issue”.
Responding to the mayor’s statements, Aisha Ahmed – development manager at Minority Matters – told HuffPost UK: “It is ironic that he’s now using Covid, lockdown, loss of jobs and police cuts. Seriously, children and young people were vulnerable and openly being recruited in places where they were supposed to be safe. What has Sadiq done to protect the families? Why are there so many drugs on our streets and neighbourhoods?”
As well as 20,000 police officers lost to austerity, recent analysis by the YMCA charity found local authority spend on youth services had dropped 69% from £1.4bn to £429m between 2010 and 2019, resulting in the loss of 750 youth centres. In the first five years of austerity, local authority budgets were cut by 40% amounting to an estimated £18bn lost from care provision for those most in need.
The government disputes that cuts are to blame.
When HuffPost UK asked the Home Office about concerns around austerity and the impact it has had on young people – specifically Black and minority ethnic communities – the department pointed towards recent funding that has been rolled out.
Policing minister Kit Malthouse said: “The government is determined to end the scourge of county lines and tackle the vile criminals exploiting vulnerable children, which is why we have invested £65m in county lines specifically since November 2019 which has already seen more than 3,400 people arrested, more than 550 lines closed, drugs with a street value of £9m and £1.5m cash seized, and more than 770 vulnerable people safeguarded.
“However we are aware that those at risk of exploitation need support to stop them getting drawn into county lines. This is why we are investing £230m in youth services and projects that give young people support and get them involved in positive activities.
“The government is also improving the police response in areas worst affected by serious violence by investing £176.5m over the last two years through the serious violence fund. This includes violence reduction units, which bring together organisations across local communities to tackle violent crime and address its underlying causes, with a further £35.5m of funding just announced for the coming year.”
On behalf of the Met, McNulty added: “Policing has, it’s well documented, lost a lot of police officers and staff over the last eight to nine years. But we’re in a different place now. I am getting more resources, more people, there’s been an announcement of an extra 20,000 officers – all of the work that we’ve been doing over the last year has come through extra government funding, [...] so we can have a dedicated response to county lines and I think that is making a difference.
“Before – without the money – it was tough. Undoubtedly the funding we’ve received since November 2019 has helped.”
As 20,000 is also the number of police officers lost across the UK to austerity during the last decade, Boris Johnson’s high-profile recruitment drive will only mean a return to 2010 levels.
What’s more, Ahmed, from Minority Matters, said the police “failed” to properly utilise resources available to them in order to make Britain’s streets safe.
“They refused to target the organised criminals that robbed our children of their future,” she said. “Families are more scared for their lives than ever and everyone is looking to find a safe place away from this havoc. Many refugee and migrant families regret seeking refuge in Britain.”
Many refugee and migrant families regret seeking refuge in Britain.Aisha Ahmed
Ahmed said the authorities should place greater focus on regulating and controlling drugs, offering rehabilitation and de-grooming for children and young people affected by drug trafficking.
“The government should invest in better border controls, intelligence-led investigations and monitoring rogue employees that are enabling drugs to come through,” she added.
“Children and young people aren’t even safe in prison. Our interventionist programmes don’t work and providers blame it on lack of engagement from the children’s part. Put yourselves in their shoes; would you have time to engage when you’re being trafficked from town to town, staying in a trap house or addict’s house, carrying drugs in your backside, starved and abused in the process and when police catch you, you’re instructed to take all the blame?”
The UK government should look to the examples of other EU countries that have “better” youth detention facilities, interventions, training and education provisions, Ahmed said.
“Just like Switzerland, our government and mayor can invest in having effective systems in place and bring together parents, government officials, community members, law enforcement and medical experts.
“We don’t want drugs on our streets, nor do we want drug lords making millions on the backs of children and young people. If the government can’t crack down on the ones running the drugs trade, from smuggling to building up distribution networks using children and young people, then they should take full control of the trade under a public health issue policy.”
* Names have been changed.