How did you become aware of county lines drug trafficking?
I became aware of county lines towards the end of 2019 because of two separate events. My colleague, Bill Crooks and I had been working with The Clewer Initiative for three years and together we had produced their modern slavery training resource, Hidden Voices. In October 2019, Bill went to Bridgwater to do a case study on the work of the Hidden Voices action group there. While he was there, he realised that nearly everyone he spoke to had a connection to county lines and because of that, he came away thinking that county lines was clearly a form of modern slavery that needed its own focus and resource. As a result, we started work on a new resource called ‘Breaking County Lines.’ At about the same time, and quite coincidentally, a county lines issue infiltrated a church project I was involved in.
With my church, I volunteer at a hostel for homeless young people. We keep in touch with some of the residents of the hostel who leave and we had formed a six year relationship with one of these guys. Because of this, we thought we could trust him but sadly we were completely taken in by him. He came to the hostel one evening when we were about to take the current residents out bowling and asked if he could come out with us. We thought, “why not?” During the course of the evening, unknown to us, he targeted one of the more vulnerable residents and supplied him with drugs. He continued to contact the young resident after this but eventually the drugs and the contact were discovered by the hostel staff. This set many safeguarding alarm bells ringing and for a while, we were not allowed back into the hostel.
We had been very naïve and failed to spot the signs. He had turned up in a nice car and we had just accepted his explanation for where the money had come from. We have learned a lot from this and now have a much more rigorous safeguarding policy. Fortunately, we were able to prevent the young man from getting a job in a local school for vulnerable children. But this incident does raise the question of how we balance the desire to develop trust and rapport with the young people we build relationships with, alongside strong safeguarding measures.
How do women and girls get drawn into county lines?
Often women or girls are drawn into county lines through their boyfriends. Sometimes they can be looking for a place of safety because their family life is unstable, and they can find that ‘safety’ in a local gang. Sometimes they are looking for a sense of belonging and inclusion or even status – sadly for some girls, they get a sense of status from being attached to a ‘bad boy’.
Once they are in the gang, young women are forced to do all kinds of things. They may start by just preparing the drugs but many will go on to be ‘runners’ as they don’t raise the same amount of suspicion as young men. Sometimes they are even required to carry the drugs inside themselves. Often, they are intimidated into sexual activity to keep them compliant.
Because they are extremely vulnerable, they don't want to lose their boyfriends and this makes it easier for gangs to control them. It can be very difficult to extract girls from county lines because the gang will threaten to harm them or their families if they attempt to leave or tell the police.
How can girls be rescued from county lines gangs?
To be honest, it is really difficult which is why it is so important to spot the signs before they get trapped. Quite often, because of the intimidation and threats, girls are only extracted from this situation when it comes to the point where the police are involved.
What sort of things can we do to prevent women and girls getting drawn into gangs?
I think the answer lies in strong cohesive communities. I don’t think there has ever been so much pressure on young girls as there is now. This is due to social media influences and also expectations from school and their peers. Their mental health is suffering which is shown in the huge numbers of young girls taking medication and self-harming. I think as a society we need to affirm girls for the people they are and encourage them to stop comparing themselves with other girls. Every girl has been made beautifully unique with talents and gifts and we need to affirm them for their creativity as well as their academic achievement and make them feel good about themselves.
We also need role models for our kids, particularly those from vulnerable families or single parent homes. If people are struggling, we must not judge them. Some parents fear asking for help because they think they are going to have their kids taken away from them. That needs to change. There is an African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” and I think that is true for the UK too.
We need to bring up the next generation together and support parents right from the time a child is born. If we do this our children will grow up feeling part of a community and not look for safety and a sense of belonging in the wrong places.
Jackie Mouradian runs the training consultancy, Mosaic Creative with her colleague Bill Crooks. It provides training and resources in all aspects of community development.