County lines: ‘I was 11 and in a drugs gang – why did nobody save me?’ – BBC

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Watch: Nicole tells her story of joining a drug-running gang aged 11
Every week, children criss-cross the UK on buses and trains, ferrying drugs as part of county lines operations. BBC News spent months with one organisation battling to help children who are in danger, hearing young people's stories of abuse and their families' heartbreak, and learning what it takes for them to break free. Three people tell us their story of county lines.
"I have seen a lot of things, seen people get kettled with boiling water," says Nicole. She was recruited to a drug-running gang at the age of just 11. "I've seen people get stabbed because of the littlest disagreement, over things like £20."
Before she joined the gang, she was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, showering at school when she got the chance. "It finds you," Nicole, now 18, says about county lines. "You don't find it."
The gang promised her a new bed, new clothes, and help for her mother to pay the bills. She says she saw her new friends with "nice trainers, nice clothes and make-up". "I was just so jealous that I didn't have that. And I was at the point where I would do anything to be able to get that," she says.
Nicole transported drugs from Newcastle across the country. "I was so naive," she says. "I literally had an address, a date, time and a train ticket."
But the gang's promises never came true. "We never got to that point of us having a bed. We never got to that point of us having new clothes." Instead, she was initiated into a world of violence and child abuse.
On one devastating trip, Nicole was travelling south, beyond London. She says she cried in the toilets at every station she stopped at.
"When I got to the location, what was planned, didn't happen," she says. "I had to do a lot of things that I didn't want to do to [get] out of that situation alive. If I hadn't have done what I was asked to do – which was sexual, physical, mental – then I don't think I would be here today."
The violence she witnessed kept her working for the gang. She was told what to do and warned: "If I wasn't doing it, I would pay for it." But to this day, she cannot understand why no adult intervened as she travelled the country on trains and buses, alone, aged 11 and missing school.
"Not seen, not found, not asked why I wasn't at school, not asked why I wasn't with a mam or a dad. That is now what mostly affects me to this day," she says. "Why someone didn't step in any sooner?"
After two years of violence, abuse, fear and broken promises, just as she reached her lowest point, Nicole was able to grab a chance to escape.
A teacher had been offering her showers at school and paying for her meals outside of school. One day, aged 13, Nicole turned up after suffering a miscarriage.
"She noticed and she took me to the hospital. I had just had enough. I'd reached that breaking point," Nicole says. "I can trust this person. She needs to know that I am not OK."
Now, five years on from her escape, Nicole is studying at college to make a better life for herself. She hopes to have a house and a family, and she says she wants to be the kind of person who doesn't look away when someone needs help. She wants to give hope to others who may still be trapped, frightened and exploited.
"I couldn't stress to people enough that it doesn't matter how scared you are. You are valid. Your feelings are valid. You are never that stuck," she says.
"If you are still living and breathing, you are never stuck past the point of return. You can always end up at the better end of it. And I stand by that."
Sarah – not her real name – hopes her teenage son will be another one of the children who can break free of the drug gangs. He's gone missing more than 50 times this year already. And she has no idea where he is now.
"He's just constantly out of control really, he's just running away for weeks on end," she says. "Not knowing if he's alive or dead, or anything like that. Who's he with? Is he alright? Is he getting fed? Anything like that. You just don't know."
When her other children ask where he's gone, she has nothing to tell them. "It's breaking the family apart."
"He's my little boy and I can't protect him and he is out there," she says. "That's one thing I always promised when I had children, to protect them and to love them as much as I could. And I can't do that."
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help and advice can be found here
Sarah says it's been about a year since her son, now aged 16, became involved in county lines.
She says some signs were obvious – hanging around in gangs with masks, all dressed in black. She says there was a change in the music he listened to.
But Sarah says she saw a change in behaviour too. "They start distancing themselves and their attitude starts and they start arguing. And they lock themselves away. And then obviously, they just don't connect with you at all," she says.
He is still young and vulnerable and Sarah says he has to follow the gang's instructions or there could be "repercussions on the family".
"He's a scared little boy," she says. "I know him and he's so changed so much. And sometimes, he comes up and just cuddles us for no reason and I know he's scared. But he has to do what he has to do because of the older ones."
With the help of workers at Edge North East, an organisation that specialises in mentoring children caught up in serious violence, or county lines, she hopes there is a way out for her son. But for now, he's still missing and Sarah is still waiting.
"I'm stuck in this trap house. I don't know how to get home, would you be able to get us home?" That's the kind of phone call Andy and the team at Edge North East often get.
One evening, he and a colleague set out on a 10-hour cross-country journey after receiving a similar call. "Without a thought we just got in the car, drove down and got them," he says.
Andy is not someone who would suit a conventional nine-to-five job. Tall, broad and tattooed, he rides his Harley-Davidson around Newcastle. He says the job is all about building trust with young people because "they have nobody around that they can trust".
"Every young person that goes into it, is going to be a victim of violence, somewhere along the line, you know," he says, "beaten, stabbed, whatever. It's absolutely awful to think about to be honest."
The organisation works with young people who are at the highest risk of going missing, being groomed and coerced into travelling across the country to deliver drugs.
"Years ago, you just wouldn't think about using a kid to run drugs. But now they just couldn't give a crap, as long as they can line their own pockets with money, they don't care who they use," Andy says. "It is heartbreaking."
Too often, he says, too many people negatively label the behaviour of the children he works with, without looking at the reasons for their actions. "I just wish some people would just open their eyes and just look at them as a child. And things may be a bit different," he says.
"These are lost young people. There's always something in this young person's life that led them to do what they are doing. That's what people need to look at and wonder what they've been through."
Andy says the glamorisation of gang culture on social media sends the wrong message, but the connections Edge North East is making with young people are making a real difference.
"Lives are being changed," he says. "No kid is ever a write-off."
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