Published: 06:00, 02 December 2020
A film maker has used his experience working with vulnerable children to spotlight the savage effects of widespread drug networks on families and communities.
County Lines follows Tyler, a 14-year-old boy who is groomed and recruited into a gang and used to sell illegal drugs across the home counties - and its director said the story is a tragic reality for some children in Kent.
Balancing youth work in London alongside his film making, director Henry Blake made the decision to bring the two together after realising the harrowing extent of violence and danger inflicted on children embroiled in county lines criminal networks.
He said: "The light bulb moment for me was when a 15-year-old boy from the pupil referral unit went missing for three weeks and no-one knew where he was.
"When he came back into his local area his throat was slashed - he survived fortunately."
The boy had been in Aberdeen where he had lost his supply of drugs, leaving him in debt to the gang members controlling him back in London who went after him when he returned.
The director said: "I had kept my youth work and film making very separate and deliberately so, but I came out of that year very shaken, very distressed, and with an instinct knew inside me that it was time to bridge those worlds - I couldn't ignore what I was seeing and hearing...'it's as bad as you think."
County lines sees London gangs running Class As - usually heroin and crack cocaine - in to commuter towns to find new markets.
Although arrests and figures are widely reported, Henry wants to reveal to viewers the people who's lives are forever changed by their contact with these gangs.
He said: "I don't think the general public really understand the human cost to all of this, and the long-lasting effects and consequences that it has on young people, but also on communities - it's very distressing for communities to handle this issue which is highly organised crime.
"And I think that's where the film is proving to be so powerful, because the general public can watch it and they really get a very strong sense of what the stakes are in this."
Prior to directing the feature, Henry produced a short film telling a similar story about the effects of county lines networks on children.
During a session in Ashford, Henry was confronted with another real-world example his feature film would eventually address.
The director said: "The Ashford sessions that I did were wonderful - we showed the film to a young person who was about 15 years old, who I was told was contemplating becoming involved in county lines, and his mother.
"They watched the short film together, and we had a post-screening discussion which was extremely powerful. She said 'I have no idea why he would want to get involved in this.'
"He said 'well we need money,' so it was a discussion of trying to unthread those intentions, and also a bit of a wake up call."
Kent Police says enforcement action has led to a 'gradual reduction' in the number of active county lines, down from 82 in July 2020 to 59.
Detective Superintendent Mike Worrall said: "The supply and misuse of drugs in any area can have a profound and far reaching effect on communities.
"As well as the misery and distress caused by county lines, residents often also end up being plagued with anti-social behaviour, caused by users and dealers entering and leaving properties on a regular basis.
"The associated fear and anxiety which is caused is simply never acceptable, which is another reason why there will be no let-up in our determination to tackle and dismantle this destructive trade.
"The vital support we receive from members of the public in helping detect and deter offenders remains vital.
"By continuing to work together we really are ensuring the message gets through to criminals that operating in Kent simply won’t be tolerated."
But Henry hopes projects like his feature film will shock communities and agencies into looking at new ways of tackling the complex problem of county lines rather than just the usual arrest figures.
After years of working with young people, he believes a fresh public heath approach like the one seen in Glasgow might begin to tackle the widespread problem - but right now not enough is being done.
He said: "The stance in the UK has traditionally been a criminal stance - you can a knife you're going to get prosecuted, you sell drugs, you're going to get prosecuted. It's very black and white.
"But what county lines brings is this other context of a young person's drives and push and pull factors as to why they are engaging and becoming exploited.
'The stance in the UK has traditionally been a criminal stance...it's very black and white...'
"Just changing the language around it and saying 'look let's not criminalise everyone, let's actually try and work with the families, create more community spirit and collaboration, and let's be a bit more imaginitive and dare to think outside the box."
Is my child in a county lines gang?
Children being recruited by these drug gangs often begin to behave in particular ways.
Henry said parents need to look out for changes in behaviour, in speech patterns or even new words which they have never heard them using before.
He said: "You feel like you might be making a fuss about something, but every parent says the child literally transformed before their eyes.
"With youth work your job is to make a mountain out of a molehill, and nine times out of ten it might not amount to anything - but with county lines often that molehill becomes a mountain very quickly, and then it's very different to get that child down off it."
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on Friday.