Ben Nelson-Roux was just 16-years-old when he was found dead by his mother Kate Roux, at a homeless hostel for adults, in Harrogate, in April 2020 and an inquest examining the circumstances surrounding his death will be held later this year.
Ms Roux, from Knaresborough, said he was an “exceptionally bright, interesting, funny and compassionate” boy, but he struggled with mental health issues and drug abuse for several years.
“Prior to the last 18 months of Ben's life, I would have said that we had a really, really strong relationship,” she said.
“We were very close, we could talk about anything. We had a fantastic extended family, who were very warm, very affectionate, very supportive and non judgmental. You really would have thought that we had enough support there for him.
“It's really frightening to see that somebody else has got inside your child's head and your child is no longer thinking straight.
“It just gets harder and harder to talk to them about how you can find a way through it, when you know they've been completely brainwashed.”
Ms Roux believes her son was particularly vulnerable to exploitation because he had attention deficit disorder, which affected his decision making, and he had been moved out of mainstream education and into an alternative provision facility after struggling at school.
“Once a kid is out of school, they are incredibly vulnerable and there’s evidence to back that up," she said.
“When they’ve already got a sense of being othered and diminished expectations for the future, they become very easy pickings.
“These groups know what they're doing. They make these kids feel like they belong somewhere.”
Ben was also offered support from a series of social workers and NHS mental health professionals from the age of 12.
Ms Roux said the family felt many of the initial meetings were constructive, but when Ben’s condition deteriorated and the gang’s grip on him tightened they were bombarded with conflicting messages from various organisations that were “completely impossible to follow”.
“With increased drug use and spiralling mental health issues, it became harder and harder to connect with him,” she said.
“He was being fed all sorts of opinions that just didn't make sense and he was incredibly paranoid.
“One of the things I would say parents should watch out for is being constantly on the phone. His phone never stopped so he never had a moment to try and focus on something else. He was always being either chased for money or offered more drugs or work.
“There was absolutely no respite and he was terrified of not having his phone because the threats against him were ramping up. He couldn't bear to not know what was being said next.
“I think that's a definite strategy of not giving the child any space to think. They're so frantic, that they just can't stop and breathe and talk to their parents and try to come up with a strategy.
“I would sit down and try to talk about what we could do next and how we could get help. But the whole time the phone was going and going and going and he wouldn't let me take it away.”
Ben believed that if he left the family home and refused to return, he would be eligible for a flat, but he was then moved into a homeless hostel for adults.
He was found dead on April 8 in 2020 and an inquest in September will examine the circumstances surrounding his death and the decision to place him in unsupervised accomodation for adults.
Across England, social services found 12,720 children in England were involved in gangs in the year ending in March 2021.
The Government is being urged to set up a coordinated system of support for families whose children are at risk of exploitation and crackdown on the criminal gangs who target them.
The Commission on Young Lives, which was set up by former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield to examine the issue, has interviewed families who said they were unable to access the right support when their children were being exploited.
Families said they felt "ignored and abandoned" and criticised the slow response of some agencies and the “blizzard of bureaucracy and assessment forms”.
The commission, which comprises a panel of child safeguarding experts, found that 10 years ago county lines drugs gangs “almost entirely involved” children who were in care or had vulnerable parents, but a growing number of middle class children are now being targeted.
Parents who are concerned their child may be a victim of exploitation can contact the charity Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace) UK for advice and support.