Last week, the Commission on Young Lives published its second thematic report, looking at how we can best support families whose children are at risk of exploitation.
We are very grateful to those families and young people who spoke to us about their experiences. These conversations are crucial to our evidence-gathering and to the recommendations we make.
This is Ben and his family's story.
Ben was about 11 when he was caught dealing weed in school. While Ben has refused to be assessed and so is not diagnosed, his parents now think he has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and, as his mother, Julie, said: "While this means he finds it difficult to focus on some things, it can also mean that when he does engage, he gets hyper interested. Ben will not discuss his diagnoses, including, the extent to which he has used - still uses - drugs to self-medicate."
Initially, Ben was picking up and dropping drugs for older kids and was paid in weed. "As far as I could work out," said Julie, "this was part of a type of pyramid selling. The older kids were getting the drugs from someone else and would then pass this; Ben struggled with academic achievement, but this seemed to give him status and access to 'grown up' things. We did wonder whether he was being groomed but having discussed it with the school, thought it was a one off." Ben did well in his SATs and when he moved to secondary school, things seemed fine. But at parents' evening at the end of year 9, Ben's parents heard from teachers that his behaviour was aggressive, that he was not working but was hanging out with older boys.
Julie recalls that when Ben was 12, she was helping him with homework when he got a call and then suddenly needed to go out. "I began to understand what was happening and it turned out it had been going on for a year. He had established a high status amongst groups of kids in the area, including older kids. Although he does not immediately present as vulnerable, he is willing and has no fear." By this time Ben had abandoned his schoolwork and, when his parents challenged him, he would tell them they were 'fucking mad' and swore blind that he was not dealing. At 13 he was beaten up and had his phone and watch taken. He had been doing a deal but had smoked some of the weed he was meant to deliver. One time, when Ben was 14, one of the dealers threw a brick through the window, contributing to the family moving.
Despite the promises he made, Ben was still smoking weed and would lose his temper when Julie threw it away. At the same time, he was a child and would sometimes ask if he could sleep on a mattress in Julie's room. By this time, she and Ben's father had split (they have since reconciled): "Things were not great but the strain of what was happening did not help and we disagreed about what we should do." Ben decided he wanted to move schools but although he had a good first term again things escalated. "Soon he was dealing at lunchtime, then after school and then before school," said Julie. "His mate had been expelled and started at a PRU and they were now dealing together. It became clear that he was involved in county lines. There was a lot of police activity and increasing chaos at home. Ben was stealing, dodging fares and smashing windows at home. When he was 15 there was a day when it really kicked off as he had taken £150 out of my account. I confronted him and he got very aggressive. A neighbour drove him around to his dad's. They got into a massive row and the police were called."
A few days later Ben disappeared again. Julie accessed his computer and found that he had been making deals, traveling around the country, sleeping in crack dens with the money underneath his body. "By now we knew the name of some of the adults involved; we told the police but he is still out there." The YOT escalated the case and the family were assigned a social worker, who alongside Ben's dad, decided that a curfew should be set for Ben and that, if he broke this, he should not be allowed back into the family home. "We registered him again with [missing persons] and the grooming register with the idea that the more triggers around Ben's name the less useful he would be to the county lines operators." Ben was picked up on his way to make a delivery. The train conductor sensed that something was wrong and contacted a police officer who found all the 'flags' against Ben's name. He begged her to arrest him as he wanted to prove why he did not get to do the drop off. "He went off again and arrived back two days later crying. Saying they would never let him go. That there was an exit fee of £500. We rang the YOT for advice and, unusually, they advised paying this."
For Julie, one of the breakthroughs was being referred to Keeping Families Together by the YOT. They met with the family once a week for over a year. "The advice they gave - which went against everything we had been told - was to always keep the door open, let him come home. He needed to still be part of the family, who are the frontline of defence. This was a massive relief. That does not mean everything is alright. Ben is always on something and we work on that. It has been exhausting and devastating. His brother is really angry and at one stage wanted Ben to go into care."