CALLS have been made for more robust support for vulnerable children trapped in the hell of working for County Lines gangs.

It came after a teen drug runner left with a nominal £34,000 debt after police twice previously seized stashes of heroin and crack was back before the courts after being snared by another County Lines gang.

The 17-year-old boy, who cannot be named because he is under 18, was caught in an undercover police sting selling class A drugs to plain clothes detectives near a Pinehurst play park.

Reaction from politicians

Following the case, Labour’s Swindon council spokesman on children’s services Coun Carol Shelley called for better support for young victims of the ruthless County Lines gangsters.

She told the Adver: “Teen involvement in the supply of drugs for criminal gangs is a major concern.

“Following this case and others like it, it is clear that robust systems need to be in place to support vulnerable young people and their families to prevent further serious exploitation.

“Teens trapped into debt by County Lines gangs do not have the ability or resources to get out of a vicious cycle of offending without safeguarding and support.”

This Is Wiltshire:

Coun Carol Shelley

Sarah Church, Labour candidate for the South Swindon parliamentary seat said she had spoken at length with parents of teens caught up in County Lines. “From the conversations I have had with parents of children who have been caught up in county lines, this is a tragedy for those families - and safeguarding should be at the heart of our response.”

Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary and Ms Church's Conservative opponent, said: "As a minster and as Secretary of State I have been making sure there is a cross-government approach to County Lines not just in terms of policing but in the criminal justice system.

"Very often, this is an issue of safeguarding. The question of exploitation and grooming is only growing in the public consciousness."

County Lines

County Lines gangs have grown in prominence over recent years as drug dealers from London, Birmingham and other large cities look to new markets in smaller towns.

The National Crime Agency estimated there were around 1,000 named drugs lines – the phone hotlines called by addicts to order crack cocaine and heroin – in 2018.

Strong transport links make Swindon an easy target particularly for London gangs. Wiltshire Police has suggested there could be as many as 37 County Lines gangs passing through the town.

Increasingly, police forces are treating young or vulnerable gang runners as victims of exploitation – even modern slavery.

Teen with massive drugs debt

The Swindon 17-year-old’s story is heartbreaking but not unusual.

In January, police raided the same boy’s family home – finding heroin and crack cocaine with an estimated street value of £26,000. He had been picked up at a known drug dealing hotspot off Grange Drive with hundreds of pounds in cash.

He was given a 12-month youth rehabilitation order in April. The court heard the boy, who had been exploited by older drug dealers in another town before his family was moved to Swindon, had already clocked up a nominal debt of £34,000 having previously been picked up by police with drugs in his possession.

Four months on from that court appearance, the teen was back working the streets – this time for the Sanchez County Lines gang.

Drugs squad officers called the Sanchez line on August 29. Through a number of phone calls they were directed to Tovey Road park near the children’s play area.

This Is Wiltshire:

The teen was picked up selling drugs off Tovey Road, Pinehurst

They found a group of six youths behind some trees and bushes. The officer asked for “two light and two dark”, slang for the crack cocaine and heroin respectively, and handed over £20. The exchange was captured on a hidden camera.

Appearing before Swindon Youth Court last week, the boy pleaded guilty to supplying crack cocaine and heroin.

Luke Jameson, defending, said he had asked his client questions designed to find out if he had been exploited but the boy “had not been forthcoming”.

The solicitor told magistrates: “I take the view that with any young man of his age generally there is exploitation. They are not old enough to understand the consequences of their actions and they are very vulnerable to adults getting them to sell drugs. This is a young man who has been exploited at a young age – and that has been identified.”

Magistrates sentenced the boy to an 18-month youth rehabilitation order with an intensive supervision requirement. He must abide by a three-month curfew and pay £106 in costs and surcharge.

Authorities respond

Swindon Borough Council declined to comment on Coun Shelley’s remarks.

Wiltshire Police said detectives “worked hard” to target gang leaders but also aimed to protect often vulnerable people targeted by the County Lines gangs.

“The work the force does in relation to County Lines along with our partners involves all aspects of policing: enforcement, protection and prevention,” a spokesman said.

“Each case is dealt with on an individual basis with us assessing risk and prevention as priorities.

“Officers work hard to get to the drug gang leaders who can destroy so many lives but they also aim to remove vulnerable people from our streets and out of the County Lines system; protecting them and hopefully, with help from those same partners, preventing them from falling back in to this destructive way of life – that is always our aim.”