Published: 17:30, 09 August 2018
| Updated: 12:59, 10 August 2018
An ex-gang member has said children as young as 10 or 11 are being recruited to deal drugs in parts of Kent - and claims it has been an issue for six or seven years.
Francis Osei-Appiah, the founder and chief executive of crime prevention charity Reform Restore Respect, warned there is "no quick answer to the problem” of so-called county lines operations.
He also believes more should be done to support vulnerable young people.
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County lines operations see gangs approach vulnerable young people in distant areas to traffic drugs.
The Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity.
Reform Restore Respect, which is supported by Kent Police and Sevenoaks District Council's community safety partnership, delivers workshops in schools across Kent and London to deter children from getting involved in crime.
Francis believes the impact of government cuts, a lack of specialist police task force, and a failure to support vulnerable young people has also contributed to the problem.
He has, however, praised Kent Police’s response to the “ongoing issue”, and says officers are “doing a great deal to try and solve it”.
He said: “Gangs have been an ongoing problem in Kent for the past six or seven years.
“The main issue in Thanet is county lines crime.
“It’s one of the poorer areas of Kent, and like all areas where there’s poverty, they have had issues.
“Children as young as 10 or 11 are being recruited.
“They groom them by giving them gifts because, at that age, it’s so competitive and they want materialistic things.
“The gangs are basically running away from London, because the competition there is fierce.
“Gangs are a Kent-wide issue, and it also affects areas like Gravesend, Chatham and Dartford.”
Francis, who now lives in Sevenoaks, fell into gang-related crime while at school in Tottenham, and knows first-hand the impact it can have on people’s lives.
By the age of 19, he had been sentenced to 16 years and eight months in jail for kidnap.
He served more than eight-and-a-half years and while inside he completed a degree in health and social care, before setting up the Reform, Restore and Respect charity.
He said: “It was my first time in prison, and I made sure it was my last time.
“I started the charity based on my own experience, to promote early intervention.”
Francis says gangs can make a lot of money in Kent, travelling into affluent areas where they can get more money for drugs.
He also believes the problem is linked to the number of families being moved out of London.
He said: “The gangs in London just decide to move away, go to a whole new place and start again.
“Thanet has been used to relocate a lot of Londoners, and we’ve seen more children and their families being moved from there and dumped in Kent.
“But that distance makes no sense – bearing in mind the proximity of Kent to London.
“It’s so close, they can just easily travel back – you need to move them further afield.
“Once they get into Kent, they are still going to retain their links to London.”
Alongside his charity work, Francis is on the gang matrix for Sevenoaks, and has described the town’s train station as “a meeting point for gangs”.
He said: “Gangs travel into Kent, and will drop the drugs off to our Kent children to sell for them.
“Places like Sevenoaks station are being used for the switch – it’s scary, but all we can do is keep working together.”
Francis has also described the link between youth violence and social media, calling the sites the “catalyst and trigger”.
He said: “Footage of grime and rap music, depicting people brandishing weapons, bragging about stolen goods, planning attacks and visits to rival areas, is all available for young people to watch.
“Plans for after-school fights, attacks on public transport, or recordings of fights are publicised on social media.
“There are overt expressions of wanting to hurt people, to stab, to shoot, to respond to previous issues of conflict, and respond in an extreme manner.”
Kent Police has described safeguarding children as a "priority" for the force, and has issued a leaflet highlighting the realities of life in a gang.
Chief superintendent Andrew Pritchard said: "County lines drug dealing is an emerging issue shared by many forces across the UK.
"It places a minority of young people at risk of exploitation by those who travel to Kent and other counties in order to sell illegal substances.
"Our current policing model puts vulnerable children at its very centre and we have teams of specialist officers who help to prevent young people from being drawn into crime by liaising closely with schools, colleges and youth groups to help them make better life choices through education and training.
"This partnership work has also enabled us to put effective systems in place that identify those vulnerable to exploitation and intervene before they come to harm.
"Drugs ruin lives and we take a zero tolerance approach to those who seek to benefit from the misery of others."