St Albans violent crime: 'Imagine having a criminal record before a job'
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Every criminal started out as someone's child. For the parents of teenagers coerced into a spiralling pattern of criminal activity, it's heartbreaking to watch their loved ones transformed beyond all recognition as they become further entrenched in this lifestyle. As part of our continuing look at the impact of County Lines in St Albans, we present an exclusive article written by the family member of a boy recently convicted for his part in a spate of violent crimes.
Teenage drug gang or criminally exploited children? If we do not frame and describe these individuals correctly then we continue to discriminate against the very young lives that needed protecting - long before their situations spiralled out of control.
What we can see about the crimes committed is that they were against older males. Dangerous individuals or bullied to the point of despair? Feral scumbags or developing adolescent minds suffering with addiction?
Systematically ostracised and rejected for years before even reaching 16. Strategically targeted by ruthless men - that's where headlines, community hatred and police resources need to be directed.
We now know that the grooming process began at age 14 or even younger, whilst at school, inflicted by older males - casually using violence.
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Imagine being 14 years old and led to believe that a split-open bleeding eyebrow doesn't really matter. Rushed to the hospital during the school day for stitches, because an older male bashes a door in your face but yet no one in the environment bats an eyelid.
Completely traumatised with no offering of acknowledgement, kind words or empathy. Imagine being beaten up by five males, all years older than you, on your walk home from school, sustaining a broken bone.
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Those are just small fragments of the bigger picture that happened in and around the school in St Albans attended by some of these four teenagers.
It is a common misconception that this only happens to vulnerable kids. Exploiters target children from all walks of life, including those considered vulnerable and high achievers.
We've met victims that have achieved the very highest of grades, been involved in various positive endeavours, living a healthy lifestyle and this did not make them exempt.
Child criminal exploitation (CCE) can be very much a hidden crime and is often described in the context of 'drug dealing' when in fact any instance of an adult giving a child illegal drugs (to use, possess or transport) is exploitative.
Many children who are being exploited receive no income at all or can barely afford to feed themselves adequately on an income they may receive from exploiters, so it's not a viable income that traps them, it's the trick of it all, severe fear, violence inflicted and orchestrated debt that keeps them trapped in a bleak state, often with little option of escape.
Meanwhile adult drug dealers reel in the profit of frightened children who have lost trust in adults and authorities, all filled with a dwindling hope.
Young people who experience CCE are often blamed for it and can live their lives not recognising what has happened to them.
Rather than demonising young people the hierarchies of criminals that run these operations need dismantling and to be held accountable for the crimes they commit against children, families and communities.
Many child criminal exploiters will also give children weapons as well as drugs, so much of the knife crime amongst teenagers we see is rooted in the exploitive practice discussed.
Children often commit crime under the instruction of their exploiters, as a cry for help, or because they can see no other way out, whilst under the threat of violence and being controlled mentally
It is critically important that everyone understands the act of buying illegal drugs funds CCE, child trafficking, forced criminality and modern slavery - terms the UK government and Home Office have used to describe the experiences of those described as a "teenage drug gang".
The bubble popped on some St Albans teens a long time ago.
We have to face the reality that all of the crimes these young people have been involved with have been orchestrated, facilitated and enabled by criminals.
Who gave them drugs? Where did the knives come from? We are not talking about kitchen knives here. Who are the adult men driving them around in cars?
As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to face up to - We have to recognise that they suffered years of being ostracised and having violence inflicted upon them by older males before these incidents occurred. Schools also need to realise that by excluding children they place them at direct risk of CCE.
We as a community have to think about what kind of environments we are creating.
We won't allow illegal drugs at our family home and this meant my son had to move out. I constantly pushed for him to get help once I discovered he was smoking and continued to urge him to deal with his cannabis addiction whilst he lived in supported accommodation.
I worked tirelessly (and still do) to ensure he had the right support to turn the situation around but when there are adults giving teens drugs - wanting them to be hooked to create a debt or outright exploiting and controlling them through threats and violence in a bid to create a drug dealer, it's a very difficult situation.
Parents who have soft attitudes to their teens taking drugs at home, and are at times funding their drug use also don't help, as the harmfulness becomes normalised and adults who are willing to buy drugs from children need to be of interest to the police.
Some drug users are vulnerable, some are not, some are perfectly functional professionals that clearly play a big part in this issue.
If we did not have extravagant spenders in the illegal drugs trade then exploiters would not be carefully grooming and using children in the way they do.
The extreme abuse that organised criminals force upon children, families and communities may not exist if it wasn't being funded through the sale of illegal drugs.
Career criminals prey on and torment young people and often instruct them to do the same to others by using death threats.
When we see the alarming instances of violence amongst youngsters, the root causes can be exploitation. More often than not they are experiencing trauma and anger and their behaviour is a way of communicating what is happening to them.
Many are under threat and are being instructed to carry out such acts.
None of us want violence or weapons as part of our community but no one seems to be making a fuss about illegal drugs being part of the same community.
Everyone needs to understand that this scenario started with men exposing school boys to cannabis, then giving it to them which created a dependency, hindered their minds, and threatened them - which led to crime.
Imagine having a criminal record before even having a chance to get a job.
The whole situation has been orchestrated so that these youths would be under the control of organised criminals.
Exploiters seek to gain control by offering little bits of befriending to begin with. That could be something as seemingly innocent as offering a young person a go on their bike or ordering some food into the park where they are all playing footy and offering them some chips.
Taking ultimate advantage of peer pressure and the imbalance of power. By the time criminals have even the slightest bit of control over young people it's almost too late because there are not many viable routes out of the trap.
After recent incidents in Verulamium Park, St Albans Boys School sent a letter out to parents warning them about County Lines activity and instructing all pupils to call 999 if they are approached by anyone they do not know.
This approach clearly empowers the young people and allows parents to be alert and have the awareness that they deserve if their children are going to frequent an environment being scoped out.
If there are criminals hovering around a school with their eyes on students, parents need to know about it. We shouldn’t have to spend years piecing together a puzzle and suffering such pain.
If you or anyone you know is witnessing child criminal exploitation in St Albans call the police and report it, you can also call the National Helpline for Modern Slavery on 0800 0121700.
If you live in St Albans and have been personally affected by CCE the Hertfordshire Beacon victim care centre will listen to you and can support you in some way. They can be contacted on 0300 0115555.