Remember them

A parent’s survival tip on child criminal exploitation.

I’m a married mother of two children from the Asian community. My husband and I both had good jobs and my son was well provided for- a happy child. It took my family and the agencies involved some time to recognise that the changes in my son’s behaviour were the result of him being targeted and groomed by young people and men for the purposes of criminally exploiting him.

Within 6 months my son changed.

My son later told me that he was targeted in the park whilst playing football by an older male who had a big bag of small glass canisters and offered him drugs to try for free. The man was being very persuasive, saying my son and his friends could try them and if they didn’t like them, that was fine, but if they did like them, they could get more. That was how he was targeted.

My son became angry, using foul language, staying in his room when he was home, smoking on the street, having large amounts of money and withdrawing from attending mosque and losing contact with his friends. I was hearing lots of things about him from people in the community and I didn’t believe it because it just wasn’t like my son.

He wanted more privacy. He would come in and get changed in the bathroom. He resented me going in his room. He became secretive. He started separating himself from family and was going out all the time. He started to talk like a gangster using slang- ‘bro, roadman’ and was talking about being with ‘his boys.’  He started to be rude towards our family and argumentative.

He suddenly had loads of phones and the phones were always ringing.

I noticed that when the phone rang, his face would drop.

If the phone rang, even if he was in the middle of eating, he would stop eating, make an excuse and leave. I now know that he was being told to do a drop off- being given locations to deliver drugs to. If he didn’t, he would be assaulted.

He started coming home with injuries. His clothes torn, or cut with a blade, bruising and cuts. If I asked him how he’d got injuries or how his clothes were damaged he’d say he’d been ‘play fighting’ with friends. This wasn’t play-fighting, it was serious assault.

I would cry in front of him. I’d say whatever is happening we can sort it. He wouldn’t talk though- I think he was too scared. I think part of him didn’t want to get out because he saw these people as his friends and part of him just didn’t know how to.

I started to hear that he was hanging around with older men in cars and I felt really helpless then. He talked about how the elders would back him up and sort him out. The drug dealers, the money grabbers, the members of organised crime feed our children lies, they say that they the elders will look out for them, they say that there is nothing to worry about if they get caught because they are minors and won’t get punished by the law. They say they have their children’s back, that they’ll look after them.

I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I thought if I go to the police what do I say? I started trying to deal with it myself. I’d ask for car registrations and I’d just go round the community trying to find further information and my son. I’d come home mentally and physically drained and I was struggling to work. At times I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’d try and talk to my son and he would just walk away. My family tried to get through to him, but he would roll his eyes, talk like a gangster. Three years down the line, my family lost patience and said, ‘don’t you think it’s time to let him go’ – but this is easy to say when it’s not your child. The thought of letting him go burnt me inside. I was never going to give up on my son.

I felt helpless, confused, ashamed and embarrassed.

I see that within my community there is the mentality that if the parents put in the time with their children, there is no chance for a child to mess up. I was really aware that if all of my family and the community knew the reality that they wouldn’t understand that as our children become teens, they are in a community outside of the family where people are waiting to exploit them. They wouldn’t have seen my son as a victim of organised crime. Instead, I’d be judged as a bad mother, my son as having messed up, people would withdraw from us leaving us more isolated. My son would have been labelled as a thief, an addict or a gambler and I didn’t want those labels on my groomed child. I tried to cover it up, put a smile on my face and live a double life.

I feel like I got it wrong in how I responded to my son at this time- I was so angry with him. I had a strong reaction to his behaviour because I didn’t know or understand what was going on for him.

One time my son was arrested and I had to be there as a responsible adult for the interview. I broke down and the police said that they’d introduce me to a parent worker. I don’t think I’d have kept it together without my Pace worker. It took me a while to trust her, or even really hear her.

I had this view that my son was doing all this by choice and that’s what made me so angry, because my child had never gone without- I’d provided for him. My Pace worker explained to me that it wasn’t about a choice- it was about the way organised crime groups target, manipulate and terrorise children into compliance. My Pace worker explained that my son was being used and exploited and how my son may truly be feeling- out of his depth, scared and helpless. Me shouting wouldn’t help him; it’d tie him closer to the gang and make him feel more alone. When I let go of the anger, I could see my fear and then my son’s. I noticed how my child was being affected- how he’d return home with cuts and bruises, his clothes ripped, I saw him as a victim in this. I saw that he was being beaten into submission. At the root of my anger was fear- that he’d be stuck in a ruined life, be arrested or that he’d end up seriously hurt. I saw how he was trapped.

To any other parent going through this, I want to say-

No matter what people say to you- don’t let go. No matter how hard things get, and they will get hard, don’t give up on your child.

There were times I said things I regret, I said get out, because I was beside myself. There will be times you will have had enough. There will be times when it seems hopeless and you can’t bear it anymore. But, don’t let go, because that’s what the exploiters, the organised crime groups want. They want to steal our children. There is a rope with these abusers at one end and us parents at the other with our children in the middle. We can join together, as a community we can pull our children back together. Without us, our children will be lost to organised crime. And the part of your child you know, the part that is truly them will be lost forever. We are the ones to remind them who they are, really.