An increasing number of children aged 10 and under are being swept up into county lines drug-dealing crime as dealers look to exploit loopholes surrounding criminal culpability, senior police have told a conference in North Yorkshire.
The shocking revelation was one of many presented at an information session at Harrogate's Grove Academy for professionals working with young people, and highlighted the specific danger that county lines presents to the region's youth.
The assembled crowd also heard sobering statistics from Detective Inspector Stuart Liddell of the National County Lines Coordination Centre, who said the new model of cross-county drug-dealing recruited children in a way that was unprecedented.
"The traditional models of drug dealing didn't utilise the exploitation of children in the way county lines does," DI Liddell told onlookers.
"We're seeing a real increase in the use of under 10s - (because) criminal culpability starts at 10."
Onlookers were also told that North Yorkshire is the highest importer of "county lines" drugs in the entire Yorkshire region, with 72 identified mobile phones lines used to "call" for drugs.
The highest exporter is West Yorkshire, with 69 identified phone lines.
Current police information has nine county lines operating in North Yorkshire - but police suspect there is more that haven't been picked up due to a “massive intelligence gap”.
Across the country, police believe there is up to 6556 individuals linked to county lines crime, with 53 per cent of them believed to be aged 17 or under.
Country-wide there is believed to be 1019 county lines, with 118 of these having links to firearms.
The local prevalence of these lines was highlighted by North Yorkshire Police's Temporary Detective Sergeant Tom Barker, who said it was widespread enough that he could leave the meeting and find a young person dealing on the streets of Harrogate within a few hours.
Detective Sergeant Barker is part of a specialist, seven-strong team of police created in March 2018 and tasked with tackling the scourge of county crime in Harrogate.
He said the team has racked up more than 100 arrests in Harrogate since its formation, including children both from Harrogate and other regions.
Among the harrowing details of the arrests was the case of a 16-year-old in Harrogate. When picked up by police, he broke down and revealed he had 50 wraps of drugs secreted "in his back passage", Detective Sergeant Barker said.
It was another example of the realities of county lines crime - a far cry from what was glamorised on social media or in grime and drill music.
The session finished with a Harrogate mother giving an emotional first-hand account of how her "fun-loving" son became embroiled in the dangerous world of county lines crime.
Believing that her 14-year-old was spending afternoons at the local skate park, the mother said he suddenly became aggressive and withdrawn.
"He went from a fun-loving kid to turning, just like that," she said.
It culminated in him going missing for 10 days before he was found by police, breaking down in the process and describing how he had been stood at the door of a West Yorkshire "trap house" - a household used to sell drugs from, with guns and knives clearly visible on the kitchen table.
Confident that her son is now on the track to recovery, she said awareness about the signs of county lines involvement was paramount for parents.
"I'd never heard of it - I had no clue," she told onlookers of the term 'county lines'.
"The more awareness we can get out there, the better this is."
County lines: what are the signs your child might be involved
-Frequent missing episodes, sometimes for days at a time
-Frequenting a number of different cities without explanation
-Found with quantities of drugs or weapons
-A change in behaviour, such as being more secretive, withdrawn or isolated from peers
-Having multiple phones
-Entering or leaving cars with unknown adults
-New friendships, often with the use of nicknames
-Unexplained amounts of money, phones, clothing or jewellery
Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter