In this extract from his new book, investigative reporter Jason Farrell speaks to a Yorkshire mother whose teenage son got caught up in the nightmare of county lines drug dealing.
“You either pull together, or you end up falling apart.” Helen sits in a stark recreation room with whitewashed brick walls. A table-tennis table dominates, and behind it a poster states the house rules. Bad behaviour, smacking bats, fighting, foul language or refusing to leave when asked, earns you an X. Get two Xs and it’s a week-long ban from the table-tennis table.
This isn’t a prison; it’s the school her son goes to. We are in Grove Academy Pupil Referral Unit in Harrogate, a last-chance saloon for children kicked out of mainstream education. Helen’s son Callum has been a student here for two years, and he’s also a former county lines drug runner. His story is a wake-up call to parents everywhere that, really, this can happen to almost any child.
Helen describes Callum as a typical boy, fun-loving, happy go-lucky, but he did struggle with his education and at the end of primary school, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He became more and more withdrawn at secondary school but it would turn out that there was more to this than his learning difficulties. By the time he was 12, like other children of his age, Callum wanted to spend time with his friends.
The main hangout point was at a skate park, five miles from his mother’s house in a town next-door to where his father lived. Before long, Callum’s behaviour started to deteriorate. He became aggressive and began to shut out his parents and siblings completely. At first, no one made the connection between his personality shift and his visits to the skate park.
Aged 14, he was kicked out of school permanently after turning up under the influence of drugs. It was a complete shock to his mother. Callum grew up in a small village outside Harrogate, which Helen describes as, ‘in the middle of nowhere’. On the face of it at least, this is hardly ‘drugs central’.
For Callum’s parents, news that he had been expelled for taking drugs was shocking enough. Where did he even get them from? He said two girls had given him some cannabis and it was the first time he’d ever tried it.
Helen believed him. The idea that he might be more deeply involved in a sinister network of dealers was beyond anyone’s imagination.
No one in the village had ever heard of county lines drug dealing. It was the drug offence that meant Callum ended up at Grove Academy Pupil Referral Unit in the nearby town of Harrogate.
Callum finally admitted that at the skate park he had been approached by older boys and offered some money to deliver cannabis to some customers. He was shown a big wad of cash. He’d get a share if he just helped out.
When he did, he was actually paid with a bit of cannabis rather than the money. Before long he was also being offered harder drugs including MDMA and cocaine. He started running drugs in the local area and was becoming an addict himself.
He was at the bottom end of the supply chain that came through Leeds. He supplied the larger town of Harrogate and areas beyond. Often, he was driven around Yorkshire to drop off drugs, and several times he was trafficked to bigger cities.
On one occasion, he was taken to Leeds where his job was as doorman to a drug dealer’s house. He watched as gang members arrived, leaving their guns and knives on the table while they discussed business. When he told them that he didn’t want to work for them any more, they showed him a video of the gang members beating someone up. He was told, “If you don’t do as you’re told, this is going to happen to you and your family.”
Helen says that she simply hadn’t realised what was going on, and by the time she did it was too late. She remembers going up to Callum’s room one day and discovering that he wasn’t in his bed. Helen started locking the front door and hiding the key but Callum would slip out through his bedroom window. “Unless you were in the room watching over him all night, there was nothing you could do to stop him going because he was determined.
Even if the police brought him back, an hour later he’d go again. We were out two, three, four in the morning, driving around looking for him, and I couldn’t find him. His two sisters came along too because they were older. And everyone’s got to carry on as normal and go to work the next day. It takes its toll very much. You either pull together, or you end up falling apart.”
Even though he was supplying for the gang, Callum wasn’t earning enough to feed his habit, so he took to shoplifting. Helen remembers picking her ‘completely broken’ son up from the police station after he’d been caught. At this point she became desperate to get him out of the area.
“He just wasn’t going to escape this ring if we didn’t send him away,” says Helen. “I actually went to the local authority and they didn’t want anything to do with it. They said I needed to take more parental responsibility for my child. I couldn’t make them see that I couldn’t keep him safe. I said, ‘I am doing everything I can do, but I cannot physically keep him safe. So, I need your help’.”
Callum was starting to disappear for longer and longer periods. Then, one December just before Christmas, he vanished. Ten days passed before Callum was picked up by the police. He’d been taking drugs, selling drugs, and sleeping rough under bridges in sub-zero temperatures. He was lucky to be alive.
Finally, social services agreed to step in and he was moved to a children’s care home in North Yorkshire, two hours from his home. The PRU kept his place open and provision was made for him to make the two-hour drive each day to his school. He was being treated like someone in a witness protection programme, but his support network and school structure stayed in place.
The children’s home got him away from the immediate problem – but when you are a 14-year-old drug addict, it’s never a completely smooth ride back to normality. In care, he was still mixing with the wrong people, still going out after dark.
Slowly, things began to improve. The gang didn’t know where Callum was and he started a programme to get himself off the drugs. He was less disruptive at school. Perhaps it was the relief that the gang couldn’t get to him. After seeing the efforts others had made to rescue him, he finally seemed to want to save himself.
When I met Helen, Callum was about to turn 16. That day, a teacher had taken him fishing and they returned with a massive pike. His childlike excitement was far removed from the withdrawn, lost child of a year or two before. His work experience employer offered an apprenticeship on the condition he got into college.
“Touch wood, we’ve come through it,” says Helen. “With children, you just want to protect them. But when they won’t let you in, you’re lost. It’s very frightening.
“He’d got involved very deeply in something I’d never heard of. I had no idea it even existed.”
Politicians and gang members interviewed for book
Jason Farrell’s new book examines how the nation’s county lines crisis is becoming the ‘new normal’ on our streets, as crime that previously blighted only urban areas spread to small towns and villages.
Farrell, who is Home Editor of Sky News, has interviewed gang members, MPs, police, child behaviour experts and local councils that are trying to bring this under control as well as the family members of victims like Callum.
Prior to politics Jason was a crime and investigations correspondent heading up an investigative team at Sky News.
He has also worked for Five News, ITV News and the BBC.
County Lines by Jason Farrell is out now published by Bonnier Books UK. RRP £8.99