Children as young as nine are getting sucked into drug dealing and violence – with thousands of young people in England “groomed, harmed and even killed”, a new report warns.
The Commission on Young Lives is calling for urgent action and investment to tackle the “national threat to our country’s prosperity and security” – and says the systems supposed to keep young people safe are not fit for purpose.
Chair Anne Longfield told Sky News: “It used to be the case you’d have 11, 12, 13-year-olds who were running, delivering the drugs. Now that’s going down to 9, 10, 11.
“But also, you’ve got young teenagers – 13, 14 – actually heading up county lines, delivering drugs across the country, running a business in a very ruthless way.”
Two mothers from North Yorkshire, whose children have been impacted by the problem, have spoken to Sky News.
Leah Heyes, 15, died after overdosing on MDMA that she bought from another teenager, who was himself being exploited and sometimes beaten up by drug gangs.
Her mother, Kerry Roberts, says she accepts the boy who sold the drugs “was groomed” and was himself a victim, but is campaigning for “Leah’s Law” that would bring tougher sentences for people who sell drugs to people under 16.
Ms Roberts had no idea her daughter would take drugs, but now realises it is a huge problem.
She said: “It’s available like ordering a pizza. It’s so easy to get. And our children now think it’s normal to have Class A drugs.”
The boy who supplied the drugs, via another teenager, was 17 but had been involved in dealing since the age of 14 and had been trafficked to Manchester and Scarborough among other places.
He attended the same pupil referral unit as Leah.
Sky News also spoke to his mother, Tammy Kirkwood, who alleged police, social workers and medics who treated injuries caused by gang members all failed to offer the support she needed to get him out.
She said: “Three days before Leah died, the police were in my house. I was asking for help.
“And if something had happened those three days, or when he was 14, he would have not gone to jail, and Leah would be here.”
Ms Longfield agreed, adding: “One of the things we got told time and time again was that when a parent found the horrific ‘burner phone’ in a child’s bedroom, or a knife or some cash, they’d ring up social services or they’d ring up the police. But no one could help them.”
The Commission on Young Lives is calling for a new Sure Start Plus programme to be launched for teenagers that would be part-financed by the millions of pounds recovered from the proceeds of crime every year – delivering health support and education to families.
This would be backed up by “a new army of youth practitioners” to identify struggling youngsters, build positive relationships and guide young people away from harm and towards success.
The report also called for government to hold regular COBRA meetings to tackle serious violence.
It suggested turning the Department for Education back into the Department for Children, Schools and Families with additional responsibilities for protecting vulnerable children and tackling serious violence and exploitation.
The commission also recommended a one-off £1bn children and young people’s mental health recovery programme, part-financed by a levy on social media companies and mobile phone providers.