When I arrived at university as a hopeful and nervous fresher, attempts were made to groom me and an overseas student I shared a flat with. A fundamentalist religious group identified us as a potentially lonely pair, invited us to social gatherings, strummed guitars at us and only some way in unmasked themselves and brandished their direct debit forms. It was all very underhand. I wouldn’t have called it grooming back then but the tactics were uncannily similar to those now being used by criminal networks to exploit young people in the care of the state. The similarity ends there.
Criminal drug gangs are frighteningly trauma informed, practically and psychologically. They know where the state houses its most vulnerable young people, when and how much they receive in benefits and allowances, how robustly their residential accommodation is managed and whether anyone will ask ‘where are you going and who with?’ They know how disrupted, traumatic childhoods work. Our ‘tough on the outside’ young people, with their lack of trust in authority and their propensity to form relationships quickly and uncritically wear their vulnerability on their backs. They are easy, self-identified targets for exploitation – cash generating, drug carrying expendable pieces of meat. Where the state leaves a void of real care, the drug gangs sweep in and sweep up our children and put them to work. We (the state) make it far too easy for them.
The grooming process which starts with befriending and promises of riches builds into faked but shared sense of living in an exciting sub-culture and results in indebtedness and retribution, drug addiction and criminalisation. When they don’t come up with the goods our young people are disfigured with keys or cheese graters, stabbed in the legs, cut, burned, locked away. They may disappear for days then resurface miles from home in a run-down seaside town or in a police cell facing serious and life-changing charges. The resulting devastation of futures, of opportunity and mental and physical health is a tragedy we don’t take nearly enough interest in or responsibility for.
The state (all of us) is complicit in this criminal, exploitative and drugs trade. We have starved children’s services of money, we house our most vulnerable young people together in accommodation away from home and in the worst parts of town, on the doorstep of those looking for fresh meat, we pretend that parenting is providing young people with little more than the practical means to survive, we staff our homes with under-trained, under-paid workers, we hand out money without question and we tell ourselves that young people of 15 or 16 say are old enough to make their own life choices. If they chose to prioritise spending on drugs over spending on food, that’s surely up to them. If they stay out all night, we can’t make them do otherwise. And failures in the education of vulnerable, care-experienced young people leave them under-equipped, under-educated, excluded and with a lot of time on their hands. The combined result is that our young people who are or were parented by the state (us) are handed to criminal gangs on a plate.
There will be cries of ‘not all children’s homes are like that’ and ‘there are good reasons to exclude some children from school’ but try explaining that to a 17 year old lying in hospital bed with his gums cut to shreds because he owed money to a drug gang. We have to join the dots and disrupt the business of exploitative gangs by taking our role as corporate parents much more seriously and by raising our standards. If you wouldn’t want your family living in the same street as a nest of drug dealers, why is it acceptable for looked after children to live there?
What protected me from my tambourine-wielding groomers was a sense of myself as a good person, a solid network of friends and family and a well honed gut feeling that these wide-eyed people were ‘off’. Our most vulnerable young people do not have these protective factors. And criminal gangs operate in plain sight; in our town centres, our residential areas, outside our children’s homes and on social media and they exploit the void of parenting left when the state goes missing. They can’t believe they’re getting away with it. It’s time we got clever (trauma informed), joined hands around our care-experienced young people and played these bastards at their own game. Only the quickest and smartest will win and right now we’ve got a lot of ground to make up.