A competition has launched for young people to write a poem or song to highlight the dangers of being exploited by drug gangs in East Lancashire.

Award-winning children’s author Christina Gabbitas, an honorary member of the NSPCC Council and patron for Blackburn with Darwen Libraries, has spent years working with police forces, schools and other agencies in educating young people, teachers, parents and carers to spot the signs of grooming and exploitation.

Grooming can lead to young people becoming coerced by gangs to transport and deal drugs, and then becoming trapped by falling into debt with their exploiters, who often use threats and violence to control them and force them to do more work, a practise known as debt bondage.

Christina said: “Since I began my work on the issue of county lines, I have spoken to many people who have had first-hand experience of how criminals exploit our young people.

"I have spoken to parents who are in desperation after seeing their child trapped by these gangs.

"It’s vital that we get the message across early and raise awareness with young people of how they can become trapped, and what may seem like a friendship at first, quickly escalates into something more sinister which can take their life down a destructive path.”

Lancashire Telegraph:

The gangs are usually part of larger organised crime groups from major cities who move into towns and rural areas across county borders and groom young people into transporting, storing, and dealing drugs on their behalf.

Deals are carried out using mobile phones, the so-called "county Lines", with often vulnerable adults having their properties taken over by the gangs to store drugs, known as "cuckooing".

Detective Chief Inspector Sheralyn Melton of Lancashire Police, who is attending a youth event in Blackburn with Christina in June, said: “We are committed to tackling county lines activity in Lancashire.

"We are targeting offenders who we believe are responsible for exploiting young people and, working with our partners, we regularly protect and safeguard vulnerable people who are used to transport drugs and forced into other illegal activity.

“Education and prevention, however, are also key, which is why we work closely with young people in our schools and colleges, as well as local businesses, to raise awareness of the signs of exploitation. 

“Making sure people know what to look out for and how to report incidents is critical which is why we’re supporting this competition. Encouraging young people to write a poem or song is a great way to get them thinking about exploitation and engaged in helping us to address the issue.”

The competition follows an earlier animated story and video, "Trapped in County Lines", and asks young people to write a poem or song to highlight the dangers of county lines exploitation.

There are two age groups- 12-16 and 17-21, with the closing date of June 30.

Entries should be sent to info@christinagabbitas.com and state name, age, school or university, and title of poem in the email.

The prizes are £200 vouchers for a store of your choice for the overall winner, £100 for second place, and £50 for third place, with the top 50 poems or songs to be published in a special book.

Entries will be considered by a panel of 40 judges from all corners of the UK, from poets, police personnel, young people, and people with lived experience of County Lines.

Christina added: “We’re keen to see young people get creative with what is an important topic that everyone should be aware of.

"Your words have the power to make a difference.

"Let’s use poetry and songs as a tool for change and raise awareness about these crucial issues.

"Spread the word, invite your friends. We can’t wait to read your incredible creations!”