‘County lines’ drug-running: Mothers tell how sons were groomed by gangs
SPECIAL REPORT: Teenagers sent out of London to deal drugs in Basingstoke, Leighton Buzzard and
30 March, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah
IT is every mother’s worst nightmare. Your child goes out for the day and doesn’t come back. When they do eventually walk through the door days later, dishevelled and anxious, they have no reasonable explanation as to where they’ve been.
Adeline Plange’s 16-year-old son Daniel has gone missing so many times now that her frantic worry and despair have given way to anger at those who have turned her academically-gifted boy, who once won school prizes for excellence, into a drug dealer.
She believes his grooming by a gang started in the school playground and now sees him selling drugs outside London as part of the notorious ‘county lines’ trade in narcotics. Already, police have picked him up in the company of older men in Hertfordshire and Hampshire, on one occasion with a large amount of money on him.
“These men are like paedophiles, grooming our children and brainwashing them. It is a form of child abuse,” says Adeline from her Camden home. “This whole obsession with knife crime is the wrong way around,” she adds vehemently. “We only want to talk about something unless there is a death at the end of it. We should be concentrating on how it all begins – with kids being groomed into these gangs.”
Adeline points out that another boy who, for a while, attended the same school and year group as Daniel, also went missing for almost a week earlier this month, in his case for the first time.
Frustrated with what she sees as a lack of effective action by police, youth services and schools to tackle the problem, she is getting together with his mother and other parents whose children have also fallen into the clutches of criminals.
“The idea came after I met up with another mother and we began sharing information,” she explains. “The tiniest bit of information on its own doesn’t mean that much but once you put it with what others are telling you, you start to see the bigger picture. I am now in contact with six parents and have recently come across two more who want to join us.”
Her group, which has been offered office space locally, aims ultimately to act as a bridge between the various agencies. But its first task is to break down what Adeline describes as the “cycle of shame”.
“Too many people don’t want to come out and share what is happening to their children because of fear of being labelled failing parents who’ve lost control of their kids. I want to break the shame cycle and to stop others profiting from it by getting our children to sell drugs on the streets for them.”
As we talk, she reveals that Daniel has disappeared yet again. So how did it come to this? He was born in the UK, but Adeline took him back to her own country following the death of his father.
When he was 12 Adeline returned to London and got a place for him at a well-regarded Camden secondary school. At first, she had no worries about the huge transition.
“Within 14 days of arriving he won the school’s speech-making prize,” she recalls. “He was extremely bright and always in his books.”
But several months down the line she noticed he had begun to change and soon his teacher was calling her into the school for the first of many meetings to discuss concerns about his behaviour and poor attitude to work.
“I was told he was hanging around with a bit of a bad crowd,” she says. “At no point did they explain what they meant by this and it was only much later that I learnt that these same boys were suspected of operating a drugs ring within the school.”
She was later told about two incidents: one in which it was said a pupil was discovered with a knife in a bag, which was being passed around for different people to carry, the other when a group of boys were caught on school premises drinking ‘lean’, a cocktail of codeine and lemonade.
The school involved said: “We are concerned to have received allegations of incidents taking place at the school that we do not recognise, and would encourage any parent, past or present, making such allegations to raise them directly with us to enable a full investigation.” Daniel’s behaviour started to deteriorate. “By the time he was 15, things were beginning to unravel. He was out late all the time and was secretive and moody.
He wasn’t eating properly and losing weight. I knew something was seriously wrong,” Adeline says. It was when police caught him with a knife in his bag not far from his home that she finally decided to take him out of school. But the downward spiral continued and he began to disappear for days at a time. His mobile phone log suggested he was selling drugs locally, being driven around in minicabs.
Now, Adeline believes he sells drugs from ‘trap houses’ outside the capital after police picked him up three times, once in Bishop’s Stortford, another time at a house in Leighton Buzzard, where he was found with £400 on him, and most recently in Basingstoke when the car he was a passenger in was stopped.
No arrests were made, for lack of evidence, and each time Daniel was returned home while the men he was with walked free.
Then a urine test, taken from Daniel to monitor a familial health problem, came back positive for codeine, ketamine, crack cocaine and ‘k2’, a form of the drug spice.
Despite her son being under the scrutiny of police and Camden’s youth offending team, Adeline says she has had to become an amateur sleuth, psychiatrist and support worker to prevent her son sinking further, spending much of her hard-earned money as a dressmaker on paying for services and strategies that should be provided by the state.
She says: “My son has only just got a social worker but it was a mammoth task to get one. It should be automatic that if your child is involved in drugs or knives, they should be assigned a social worker.”
The gang, she says, exerts huge control over the boys as they detach them from their parents with promises of making big money and being found a place to live once they turn 17.
“The fact is: my son never seems to have much money. Once he’s bought some trainers and a tracksuit it’s all gone. He doesn’t see this. His brain is not properly at home and he is living in la-la land,” she says. “These boys have a strange confidence because they are doing something dangerous and think they are being looked after. But in reality they are quite lost and anxious all the time. They don’t know what normal is and shouting at them is a waste of time. They need to be approached like battered wives.”
While she believes police cuts have seriously undermined their ability to get to grips with youth crime, she still doesn’t understand why they haven’t managed to make any significant arrests.
“They are making it too easy for our children to be recruited into gangs,” she says.
Names have been changed.
‘He became unrecognisable to me’
Over the years Maxine Davis has heard plenty about troubled youngsters who’ve fallen into the hands of gangs, but she never thought that her 16-year-old son would one day be joining their ranks.
Conrad, a quiet lad who once had ambitions to work in the City, disappeared from his home in Camden for five days last week following a dramatic change in his behaviour.
For Maxine, it was final confirmation of her worst fears – that her son has become the victim of a drugs-grooming gang.
“Conrad has become unrecognisable to me,” she says, visibly drained by worry and sleepless nights. “He is cold and uncommunicative, and for months has been threatening that he is going to leave home. This goes far beyond adolescent stroppiness.”
Caught by police on two occasions with blades in his bag and tagged for a short time as a result, he had dropped out of sixth-form college. He began staying out all day once the tag was removed, often only returning home in the early hours.
She had seen him hanging around boys he befriended at the Camden school where he spent the first two years of his secondary education.
They include Adeline Plange’s son, Daniel, who also went missing last week (see main story). “I took Conrad out of that school after he started to get into trouble,” says Maxine. “The whole thing was out of character and it looked like he was coming under the influence of some bad boys.”
Conrad settled down at his new secondary and managed to get his required five GCSEs. But by this time the rot had already set in and his truculent behaviour was accompanied by noticeable weight loss.
A court order placed him under the auspices of Camden’s youth offending team, which has a number of intervention programmes on offer. However, his mother is frustrated that it is up to youngsters whether they take part in them or not. “It is crazy for them to be given choices. My son is not in school or work – what do they think he is doing all day?” she asks.
Maxine feels a daily mentoring scheme would be useful for her son, but has been told this is not available.
She and Conrad’s father both took time off work to help police search for their son, but he turned up in the early hours over the weekend looking exhausted and wearing the same clothes he walked out in. He refused to tell police where he’d been.
Maxine adds: “Although he will not see it this way, Conrad is being coerced. He was definitely not in charge of where he was or when he could come back and he should be seen as a victim. The criminals are the evil people out there exploiting our children for their own ends.”
Names have been changed