In 2019, VICE News revealed that police were recruiting children as informants, known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS), to infiltrate county lines drug gangs. Despite the ethical problem of sending children into incredibly dangerous situations with little protection, last year a judge ruled that the Home Office was within its rights to do so.
If a 15-year old is arrested for shoplifting, they need to be accompanied by a lawyer in any police interview, and at 16 or 17 they at least need an appropriate adult present. But if they’re asked to become an informant on seriously dangerous gangsters, nothing. There is also no legal lower age limit for which children can be used in this way.
Due to the covert nature of these operations, if and when something did go wrong – if a child informant is beaten up, stabbed or worse – the public may never know. Below, Sam* describes how, after first being exploited by a criminal gang while in care, he was persuaded by police to become an informant, first as a teenager, then as a vulnerable adult.
I was taken into care at 13 because my mother didn’t want to look after me. Once you’re in that system, no one really cares about you – except the older criminals, who actively target the kids in care. They know you’re vulnerable and have nowhere else to go. I was taken under the wing of this older guy. He’d been in the local football hooligan firm, then had become part of a big criminal network that operated all through the Midlands. He spotted how I could be useful to him.
I have this ability to remember details. They call it hyperthymesia. If I see a car drive by me, chances are I’ll be able to tell you the license plate number weeks later. I’ve never had a formal diagnosis, but I’ve been given tests that indicate high functioning autism. So, I was good at scoping out places for burglaries and robberies. We used to do raids on electronics shops. Older lads would create a distraction using CS gas canisters, then the younger ones would run in and grab all the kit.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing he wanted from us. I was still only 13 when he took me to this empty house and forced himself on me. I’ll remember what happened to me there until the day I die. He knew I was afraid, so he made me believe that if I did what he wanted, he would protect me from other people hurting me.
At 16, I ended up in a young offenders’ prison. This was when I was first approached by the police. There was this female officer; she came into the unit, looking for me to do some “write-offs” – where you admit to unsolved crimes in your area that you may have committed, but not been caught for. It works for both sides – you get those crimes wiped from your record, so you won’t be charged for them years later; the police get to increase their detection rates.
Like the criminal guy, this officer realised I could remember stuff. She started trying to get me to pass her intelligence on all sorts of criminal people I knew about. Without me even really understanding it, she made me an informant. She wanted to know all about car thefts, who was selling stolen property around the area, all the stuff I was involved in.
I didn’t get advice from a lawyer, or anything – I was too young to know about that. This officer knew just how to manipulate me. She knew that, having been rejected by my own mother, I was so desperate for any sort of love or care that I would do almost anything she said. I wasn’t paid any money – she promised to protect me from others who could hurt me.
When I got out of that institution, the only thing I had open to me was crime. I have this problem-solving brain, so I became really good as a car thief. I did all sorts – burglaries, obviously drugs – but my main talent was the cars: I could nick pretty much anything on the road.
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I was in and out of prison all the time, and through that I started getting involved in drugs such as heroin and methadone. One time, a prison officer took me for a drive and pulled up in front of this house. I was told to go inside and I would be given some packs of heroin. I had to insert them into my backside to smuggle them back into the prison. Then I had to dig them out when I went to the toilet and get them to another guy who distributed them through the prison kitchen.
By my mid-twenties I had actually tried to go straight, and achieved some sort of stability. I got some labouring work, and actually had my own place for the first time. Then the police showed up again.
That same female officer had tracked me down. She turned up out of the blue, asking me to do more informant work, offering me money – £30 or £40 each time – and protection if I ever got arrested again. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. They started harassing my partner, then picking me up outside my drug treatment centre, implying that my methadone could be cut off if I didn’t do what they wanted. There was always the threat they could manufacture offences to arrest me for.
Because I have some mental health problems – PTSD and dissociative personality disorder – I’m considered a vulnerable person. Even as an adult, I can’t sign a legal document without another adult present. But here I was being pressured into informing on these really dangerous people, with no advice or counsel whatsoever.
The first job they set me was following this well-known traveller group who were doing distraction robberies, memorising how their operations worked. Then – even though they knew I was a recovering addict – they put me into monitoring these major Jamaican dealers moving ounces and kilos of heroin. This was different than when I was a kid. It wasn’t just stuff I happened to be involved in, now they were actively tasking me to go and involve myself in new areas, to find out information.
I was terrified all the time – every moment of every day. Some of the people I was connected to, that I was now informing on, were really serious gangsters, with drug networks all over the country. These are people who show up in national newspapers. They’re murderers. I’m writing anonymously now, but I’m still afraid to say names, because if they work out who I am I do think they will track me down and kill me.
I was always ultra-careful, but there were a few times people got suspicious of me. One group took me to a garage, threw me in the mechanics pit, laid boards down and parked a truck on top so I was trapped. They left me there for almost two days. On my own, in the dark. Eventually, I guess they figured I wasn’t worth killing, so they just let me go. I think they were waiting for a boss to come and make a decision on me, but he never showed up. Those moments were so terrifying – but in a way they were just a different version of the same fear I’ve felt my whole life.
A big part of me didn’t want to be doing this. The fear was too much. But the cops always knew how to twist me into agreeing to another job.
Today I’m not involved in crime at all. That part of my life is over. I’m not involved with the police, either. I view the police as manipulators, just like any of the gangsters who exploited me when I was a kid. How am I meant to tell my own kids that law enforcement is a force to be trusted in society after how they’ve treated me?
The problem is the whole informant system has no transparency. And really, there’s no way it can be any other way. It’s really ruined my life, though I’m trying to hold everything together now and do some good for others. I think, as long as these drug laws are in place, vulnerable people like me will always be exploited – by all sides
*Sam’s name has been changed to protect his identity