Vulnerable children are being forced to travel hundreds of miles from home to sell drugs in the north-east, it emerged today.
Police last month launched a crackdown on drugs gangs and raided 34 properties and arrested 53 people in Fraserburgh and Peterhead.
They included some trafficked from England to Aberdeen – known as county lines crime – and others whose homes were taken over by gangs to sell crack cocaine and heroin – a criminal tactic known as cuckooing.
The Evening Express can reveal three of those arrested were children aged 16 and 17 and were forced to travel from parts of England – including London – to deliver and sell drugs.
Following the two-week police initiative called Operation Corner, the youngsters, who cannot be named for legal reasons, have all returned south of the border after court proceedings and are being looked after.
Police emphasised the operation was designed to target organised crime groups and support victims of county lines crime and cuckooing.
They were helped by Aberdeenshire Council, NHS Grampian and Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnership – and about 30 of those arrested accepted support from them.
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The partnership’s community justice and substance misuse services manager Dawn Leslie said: “Staff worked intense and long hours ensuring vulnerable people taken into custody were given the right levels of support.
“They went to Kittybrewster Police Office custody suite and helped ensure people had medication, and that temporary housing was in place for those unable to return home that night.”
She added: “It was apparent some of them had a genuine fear of the organised crime groups they were associated with getting in touch with them.”
According to Aberdeenshire Council’s criminal justice social worker Vanessa Case, gangs sometimes target vulnerable youngsters living in temporary accommodation, tempting them with payment. She said some youngsters end up “paying debt” to gangs – sometimes on behalf of their siblings.
“We know of cases where that develops into someone who is around the age of 16 to 18 then doing more and more for those organised crime groups and eventually travelling to another part of the country to deliver drugs and staying there,” said Ms Case.
She added: “These young people are very much victims and, during this operation, we worked with police to offer support to vulnerable people.”
Organisations involved in Operation Corner considered all details before the raids, such as ensuring pets found in raided properties could be looked after.
Some of those helped were drug addicts who previously shunned support once they fell under the spell of gangs.
Ms Leslie said: “We have been able to re-engage with some people and have also been able to help people not already known to us to access services and support.
“Criminal justice social workers, in partnership with substance misuse and police custody colleagues, worked late into the evening to ensure those with vulnerabilities, recognised through Operation Corner, received the support and access to services that they needed.”