From angel to monster: 'My son was groomed to sell drugs'
Children from middle-class backgrounds are in danger of being groomed by criminal gangs to sell drugs, a new report has found. One mother says her son turned from "an angel into a monster".
"I was going out there looking for him myself," Claire - not her real name - explains to the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme. "I was a nervous wreck."
In 2012, her son was exploited by a criminal gang to sell Class A drugs in his early teens, which led to him going missing for long periods of time - in one instance for three months.
"There was one occasion when he came home, and I heard a rustling at my door.
"To my horror, he was actually dealing from my home.
"He was getting calls on his mobile phone and asking whoever it was who was willing to purchase to come to my gate.
"Then it progressed to him being out on the streets most of the time - nowhere to be heard, nowhere to be seen."
'Duty to protect'
Claire describes her son as being a high achiever at school, who "never had any problems with his behaviour".
"He was actually featured in the local newspaper for very good work," she adds.
Her story comes as a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults warns that children and young people from "stable and economically better-off backgrounds" are being drawn in, coerced and exploited by criminal gangs.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, who chairs the group, told the programme: "People think it's children from a particular group that are vulnerable to this and of course they are vulnerable, but we also forget that it is all children and we have a duty to protect all children, including children from better-off backgrounds who we may not think are vulnerable to this kind of exploitation and may go unnoticed."
The report says children are being used in so-called "county lines" operations - supplying Class A drugs from urban areas to county towns.
It says such grooming of missing children is "very similar" to sexual exploitation, but that those drawn in are effectively being blamed for their own participation in criminal activity, rather than being considered a victim.
Exploited children can be perceived as having "made a choice" and be seen as criminals rather than victims of the gangs controlling them.
'Recruit from their mates'
The report calls for the risks of grooming and exploitation to be taught in both primary and secondary schools.
"Any child can be groomed for criminal exploitation. It affects boys and girls," it adds.
The National Crime Agency says the issue has spread out from London gangs to the rest of the country, including Liverpool and Greater Manchester.
Claire believes her son was coerced into selling drugs.
"It could be that one of his peers, who had family members who were into criminal activity, asked their brother or sister to recruit within their mates," she says.
"There's the other side, where [he could have been] approached outside the school.
"I think personally he has gone through all of those stages."
Asked if she received any help from social services, she says: "Unfortunately with every service I was always told my son would have to have worse problems to have the support that I needed.
"I have screamed, I have shouted, I have done everything possible to try and prevent my son from getting deeper.
"Every way I turned I was backed up in a corner."
Referring to Claire's case, Ann Coffey says: "Her son's missing episodes were perhaps not seen in the way that they should have been because maybe the agencies didn't connect the risk to him in the way they might have done to another child from another different kind of background."
'Fortunate' to be alive
The cross-party report also called for a new national database for missing people, noting a lack of information-sharing that Claire also experienced.
"There has to be a response team that's working together, because I had to be dealing with so many services just for one child," she says.
"There was never anybody who could see what the other person was doing."
The government made tackling county lines one of its priorities in 2016 for ending gang violence and exploitation, saying: "It is essential that police forces and their partners develop an understanding of what this means locally."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "There is more that all partners can do, which is why we are tackling county lines through a national action plan and reviewing our cross-government strategy on missing children and adults and developing a clear implementation plan for delivery."
Claire says she just feels "fortunate" that her son is still alive.
"He nearly passed away after being stabbed," she explains.
"He's alive and he's in a hospital bed, but when I saw him I broke down.
"His words to me were: 'I'm all right, Mum, I'm OK - it could have been worse.'"
Asked for her advice for any parents in similar situations, she says: "Reach out - reach out for any help you can get."
Watch the Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.