Charlie was accepted as a victim of modern slavery – but first he was prosecuted and sentenced to 18 months
Tue 17 Sep 2019 17.00 BST
Last modified on Tue 17 Sep 2019 17.01 BST
Vicky drove through a blizzard to pick up her teenage son from prison. The “beast from the east”was wreaking havoc across much of the UK, disrupting travel and closing thousands of schools.
Once she got her son Charlie, it took Vicky three times as long to drive him from the young offender institution to the probation office. But she pushed through so Charlie, who had turned 18 during his nine-month stint in prison, could get home to open his much-delayed birthday presents.
Charlie was convicted in 2017 for having a knife and supplying class A drugs as part of a county lines operation whereby gangs use young people and vulnerable adults as couriers to move drugs and cash between cities and towns. When Charlie was first arrested he told officers he had been forced to commit various offences but no one believed he was being groomed.
The name ‘county lines’ refers to the phone numbers, or lines, that criminal gangs which traffic drugs from urban to rural areas use to organise the sale of their wares. Gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool use children to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones to smaller towns and rural areas.
The majority of victims groomed into working for gangs are 15- to 17-year-old boys but children as young as 11 have been safeguarded and girls have been targeted.
Many victims are recruited over social media, with offenders luring them with images of cash, designer clothing and luxury cars, but vulnerable girls and women are being targeted by men who create the impression of a romantic relationship before subjecting them to sexual exploitation.
In 2015, about seven forces reported county lines behaviour. Now, 44 forces, including British Transport Police, have recorded county lines behaviour on their turf.
No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part. Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to detectives. The Children’s Society says 4,000 teenagers in London alone are exploited through county lines, while the children’s commissioner estimated at least 46,000 children in England were caught up in gangs.
The number of individual phone numbers identified by law enforcement officials as being used on established county lines networks is about 2,000 – nearly three times the 720 previously established.
Police estimate the phone numbers are linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.
“I just heard ‘a third off the sentence’ if I plead guilty, so I did. I thought I was guilty because I had the drugs on me,” he said. Vicky said one of her biggest regrets was telling Charlie to plead guilty, but she thought the judge would take into consideration his learning disability and the threatening messages the police had found on his phone. Instead the judge passed an 18-month sentence.
“When the judge found him guilty and sentenced him, Charlie thought he could walk back out of the same door – but you can’t. He didn’t know what was happening,” Vicky said. “Then it began: prison visits every Sunday.”
Charlie awoke daily to the sound of doors slamming and was allowed outside once every morning for exercise. If there was a class on, he would go at 9am, but education rarely took place because of staff shortages.
After a while, the gruelling monotony of prison life took its toll. “One day I got angry and thought: fuck this, I’m not having it. So I called the Howard League from my cell,” he said, kickstarting the process that would lead to a positive decision from the national referral mechanism (NRM), which designated him a victim of modern slavery and human trafficking. The decision came a month after he left prison.
Vicky had hoped the road ahead would be clearer for Charlie, but months after leaving prison the same gang found him again. Her son was re-groomed and he was arrestedfor a second time. “I told them it was the same guys, but no one was listening,” Charlie said. Armed with the positive decision from the NRM, Vicky had believed her son would not be charged again, but she was wrong. “Despite the positive decision, no one, including the police, talked to him about it,” she said.
Charlie said he was nervous to be on trial. While he was able to show he had been a victim of modern slavery, he was aware of how easy it was to be repeatedly failed by the system responsible for protecting him. But this time Charlie had a legal team who believed he was a victim and used section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act, which introduces a defence for victims who are compelled to commit criminal offences. The jury would go on to clear him of all charges.
“After the trial, he became a new person,” Vicky said. The verdict gave Charlie and Vicky the confidence to challenge his initial conviction and clear his name. To quash the conviction, however, the CPS has to agree not to re-prosecute Charlie. “That’s the bit that the CPS won’t agree to. It’s quite hard to understand,” she said.
Vicky said she had finally been able to let go of the anger that had long consumed her. “I was going to be a character witness for the second prosecution but the barrister said I was way too passionate. I think she meant angry. I would have loved 10 minutes in a courtroom to stand up and say: ‘Do you have any idea what you’re doing to people?’ But I’m past it now. Our family motto is: ‘It is what it is,’” she said.
Her family had long been able to cope with unexpected hazards, Vicky said, adding: “We just deal with it and we get on with it. We can’t get the last couple of years back.” She said, however, she was happy they had at least weathered the storm.