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The number of homes across England being shut down because of drug dealing or substance use on site is ever increasing. Data obtained via a freedom of information (FOI) request by the Guardian newspaper showed that the number of “closure orders” essentially preventing access to the house for a period of time issued for antisocial behaviour and drug activity has quadrupled in four years, a total of 186 homes in 2018, up from 46 in 2014.
However, experts said this number was likely to be a significant underestimate, which appears to be borne out by comments made to the newspaper by a number of police services around the country who responded to the FOI request:
- North Yorkshire Police said cuckooing was a major concern in their area. As of 30 June 2019, 90 victims of cuckooing had been identified in the year and 17 cease and desist notices in related cases had been issued. This is compared with 39 victims in total last year.
- Devon and Cornwall Police said that as of 22 August residents of about 200 homes were known to be at risk of cuckooing and were being safeguarded by police. They said those numbers were subject to constant change and the force was taking the issue very seriously.
- Bedfordshire Police said the sharp rise in closure orders used, going from one to 42 in four years, was a means of taking positive action against drug criminality and anti-social behaviour.
The latest figures available show that the problem is still rising. During the National County Lines intensification week which took place during 11–17 October 2021 targeting drug traffickers who often recruit children and vulnerable adults to supply drugs across the country, 894 cuckooed addresses were visited, 1,468 people were arrested and 2,664 vulnerable people, including 2,209 children, were engaged for safeguarding purposes. (source National Police Chiefs’ Council press release, 21 October 2021)
What is cuckooing?
The term Cuckooing takes its name from cuckoos who take over the nests of other birds to lay their eggs. In the unlawful sense of the word, it is a practice where people take over a person’s home and use the property for some form of exploitation.
Cuckooing might sound quite a tame term, but it masks horrific stories of often extremely vulnerable and terrified people becoming prisoners in their own homes and it probably should be referred to as a home invasion, which far better describes the practice.
Cuckooing is part of drug dealers’ business model, and has become far more prevalent now because of COVID. Prior to the pandemic, although many gangs used cuckooing, others would often use Airbnb, guest houses or hotels to set up and run their “businesses”, but because of lockdowns they have been forced to find alternative premises, so they too use vulnerable individuals’ properties.
Through the awareness initiatives that many local councils and police constabularies are implementing, safeguarding agencies and the general public are becoming more aware of the practice and what they should be looking out for. And in the media, police series such as the BBC’s Line of Duty which featured a cuckooing storyline, have brought cuckooing, its horrendous activities and its consequences to the notice of a wider public.
What are the types of cuckooing?
Cuckooing is a crime where a criminal, or criminal gangs, exploit vulnerable people. The most common form of cuckooing is where drug dealers take control of the victim’s home and use the premises to store, prepare or distribute drugs often as part of county lines networks.
County Lines is the name given to drug dealing where organised criminal groups use mobile phone lines and social media to move and supply drugs, usually from cities into smaller towns and rural areas. Gangs use the phones to receive orders and contact young people to instruct them where to deliver drugs. This may be to a local dealer or drug user, or a dealer or drug user in another county.
It is common for these gangs to have access to several cuckooed addresses. They can move quickly between people’s homes for just a few hours, a couple of days or sometimes longer. This helps the gangs evade detection. By cuckooing, the criminals can operate from a discreet property, which is not associated with them and probably under the radar of the police; this is what makes it an attractive option for these gangs.
Other different types of cuckooing include:
- Taking over or using the property to take drugs.
- Using the property to manage the “workforce” of drug runners and to carry out acts of violence.
- Taking over or using the property for sex work / human trafficking.
- Taking over or using the property to store weapons.
- Taking over the property as a place to live.
- Taking over the property to financially abuse the homeowner/tenant.
Who might be at risk of cuckooing?
n some cases, the criminal gangs are known to utilise consenting adults to assist their criminal activity by getting them to open up their homes to the gangs and allowing the use of their home addresses for running and holding drugs or firearms.
However, the gangs usually target people who are often unable to protect themselves from being exploited. The criminal gangs then use a range of clever tactics to manipulate and exploit their victims, some of these tactics may be so subtle that the victim doesn’t always realise that they are being cuckooed, so their predicament may go unnoticed for some time.
Cuckooing usually involves the criminals identifying vulnerable people who may, for example:
- Use drugs and/or alcohol.
- Be former addicts.
- Have connections with other people involved in gangs.
- Lack a safe/stable home environment.
- Have a history of being in care.
- Have prior experiences of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.
- Be vulnerable due to mental or physical health impairments.
- Be elderly and may be socially isolated.
- Have cognitive impairments.
- Have learning disabilities.
- Be experiencing economic deprivation.
- Be single mothers.
- Be sex workers.
The gangs may use a tactic known as “debt bondage” which is where a real or perceived debt is used as a method to exert control over individuals, to provide the use of their properties for the preparation and/or dealing of drugs.
The cuckooing may begin by the criminals:
- Giving gifts or paying bills.
- Offering friendship.
- Offering sex.
- Offering drugs in exchange for use of the person’s home.
The gang then expects “repayment” for the debt and, all too often, the gangs coerce and sometimes threaten the vulnerable person into allowing them to take control of their home, so they can use it for their criminal activities as repayment for the debt.
Women who have entered into relationships with gang members are often subject to coercion, control and domestic abuse to book hotels, hire cars and identify addresses for cuckooing.
Once they gain control over the person, whether through drug dependency, debt or as part of their relationship, larger groups will sometimes move in. In a number of cases, the victims of cuckooing may ultimately find themselves homeless.
What are the signs of cuckooing?
Cuckooing usually takes place in multi-occupancy or social housing properties. Sometimes, the person being exploited has no idea that they are being used or is simply too afraid to speak up, which can make it very difficult to spot what is going on.
However, some of the signs that cuckooing may be going on at a property include but are not limited to:
- Suspicious items in the property, such as weighing scales, multiple phones, sim cards or drug paraphernalia.
- Unexplained presence of cash, clothes and other items of value.
- Conversely, the property may appear almost sparse of valuable possessions inside and begin to go into a state of disrepair both inside and out.
- Doors and windows which have been blocked off.
- New faces appearing at the property and the property regularly changing residents.
- Presence of unknown people in the property, who may act as friends of the inhabitant; their accents may indicate that they are not local and may have travelled to traffic drugs.
- More people than normal entering the property, or people arriving and leaving at unusual times.
- Possible increase in anti-social behaviour in and around the property and increased litter such as drinks cans and takeaway packaging outside the property.
- Cars arriving at the property for short periods of time.
- Signs of drug use and open drug dealing.
There are also signs to look out for in the vulnerable person; these might include:
- Concerns that the inhabitant of the property has not been seen for a while; they may feel too afraid to leave the house or may have been prevented from doing so by the drug gang.
- Disengagement by the inhabitant of the property with support services / healthcare services.
- They have paid off debts such as housing debts in full and in cash.
- They are appearing withdrawn and frightened of disclosing information for fear of betraying the criminals, or of receiving abuse or eviction.
- They are associating with new unidentified people who are often present at the home.
- They have changed their appearance, either wearing expensive clothing or appearing unkempt.
How to deal with cuckooing
If you suspect or know of someone that is being cuckooed, it is extremely important that you keep the police informed of any exploitation or criminality so that they can begin a multi-agency approach in tackling the issue. The effective intervention by local multi-agency collaborations is essential to safeguarding any children and vulnerable adults and their properties from cuckooing and other associated county lines criminal activities.
Multi-agency safeguarding coupled with law enforcement intelligence and operations will generate effective disruption outcomes.
When reporting known or suspected incidences of cuckooing activities to the police, try to provide as much information as possible including:
- The address of the property.
- A description of the concerning behaviour, including dates and times.
- Names and dates of birth for the usual occupants of the property (if known).
- Any known vulnerabilities of the usual occupants.
- A description of any visitors to the property including names and other details (if known).
- The registration numbers and/or a description of any suspicious vehicles.
Cuckooing may be part of wider and more organised crime with links to criminal exploitation, but it may also be a less organised and more localised issue.
So, a multi-agency response is key to working to address concerns around cuckooing and exploitation, and this is likely to include:
- Social care including children’s services.
- The local authority.
- Health workers.
- Substance abuse support agencies.
- The voluntary sector.
- Care providers.
The government provides guidance for agencies dealing with issues such as cuckooing:
The first step for those who are a victim of cuckooing is to talk to someone – this could be family members or a friend or a support worker. There are also other services that can offer support for victims of cuckooing and other associated issues.
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA) – for more information and location of meetings or call their helpline (10am – midnight) 0300 999 1212
- Justice and Care help rescue victims of slavery and human trafficking – telephone 0203 959 2580
- Catalyst – telephone 07584 689 517 or 07776 137 237 or 01483 590 150
- Samaritans – call 116 123 (free, 24/7) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Citizen’s Advice Bureau – telephone 03444 111 444
- Help for children and young people – call Childline on 0800 1111
- Help for adults concerned about a child – call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000
Risks and offences of cuckooing
The aim of any multi-intervention will be to protect the tenancy of the usual occupants in the cuckooed property. When carrying out their investigations, both investigators and prosecutors will proactively try to establish, so far as possible, who may be a witness, defendant or victim. However, if drugs are found at the property it is likely that the vulnerable adult, being a resident at the address, will be interviewed and/or arrested by the police.
If an occupier allows gang members to use their property for drug supply, they may face a prison sentence and/or a fine. However, if there is evidence to suggest that the adult is vulnerable and has been exploited by the gang, this will be considered when making charging decisions and safeguarding measures will be put in place.
Benefits could be lost and the housing provider may choose to evict the resident. Often, housing providers will begin by issuing a Closure Order on the address which can involve restricted access to others for up to six months.
Usually an agreement on who can attend the address will be put in place between the housing provider and the resident. These are a positive measure and can be used to help the resident gain control over their home again.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, landlords or property managers can receive up to 14 years’ imprisonment or a substantial fine for having drugs residing at their property. The property may be seized or forfeited as well as prosecuted for money laundering. The premises may be ‘closed down’ and boarded up under the terms of a Premises Closure Order: (Section 76 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014).
Many campaigners including Justice and Care believe that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in its recognition of the criminalisation of holding another in servitude, ought to afford protection to people when their homes are taken over by another.
They have stated that: “This should be the case irrespective of whether, and without the need for, any ‘additional’ service or labour is required and irrespective of whether ‘additional’ offending takes place against the victim”.
Everyone has the right to feel safe from crime. In an emergency, always call 999. If you are worried about cuckooing, you can report it to the police on 101, or online at www.met.police.uk/ro/report/ocr/how-to-report-a-crime/. If you don’t want to give your name, you can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.