Children and teenagers in the North East have been transporting guns and knives for organised criminal groups, including hiding these deadly weapons at their grandparents homes, The Northern Echo can reveal.

The shocking reality facing some families in parts of Teesside in the last six months is that children, some younger than 10-years-old, are being groomed to transport drugs and weapons, putting themselves and their loved ones in real danger.

Investigators believe teenagers are being lured into criminal activity by being offered some "free drugs", which quickly escalates beyond their control when the criminals start asking for favours, with one of those caught up in the cycle admitting to police: ‘I just like the money’.

Half of the young people involved in the organised criminal groups (OCGs) are tasked with running drugs and the others are transporting weapons.

Horrifyingly, many teenagers are storing the knives and guns not just at their houses but also at their grandparents.

The revelations come after The Northern Echo received an exclusive behind the scenes look around custody suites at Cleveland Police headquarters in Middlesbrough, which highlighted the grim reality of the region’s criminal underworld.

The Northern Echo: Young offenders in Cleveland Police custody

Over the last six months, the Cleveland Unit for the Reduction of Violence (CURV) through the Police and Crime Commissioner's office has been pioneering a new program; trained specialists, known as custody navigators, have been speaking to young offenders when they are detained. 

The custody navigators aim is to listen to young people and help them understand some of the root causes of criminal activity in the area, preventing them entering into a life of crime.

Kate Pryde, one of the navigators, explained the horror at discovering firearms were the latest illegal weapon being smuggled by youngsters in Teesside.

She said: "These OCGs are using young people. There are different elements of that. Half of the group run drugs; the other half run weapons.

"That includes knives and firearms as well. They look after them and keep them at grandparents houses."

The custody navigators are aware of three young people who have been arrested in the last six months in connection with firearms and one of those guns had been discharged.

The Northern Echo: Custody navigators at Cleveland Police from left Will Swinburne, Olivia Stairmand, Steve Turner

Officers admitted they don’t know when guns started being brought into the region or how widespread the issue is, but from their discussions with young offenders, the navigators have developed a picture of how the recruitment process is taking place. 

Will Swinburne, another of the navigators, described how the OCGs groom children from 10-years-old and on rare occasions "sometimes younger".

He said: "It stems from feeling vulnerable really. They might not be in education or they are looked after children.

"These criminals are clever, they know who to target. There's no age limit, it goes from 10-years-old, sometimes younger. 

"It starts with some free drugs and then down the line they (the OCGs) say "you owe me some money and now you have to do this for me". They will exploit absolutely anybody."

One of the young men that Mr Swinburne had spoken to summarised his motivation: "I just like the money".

The Northern Echo: Young offenders in Cleveland Police custody

The navigators don't prioritise trying to educate the offenders with PowerPoint presentations, instead they get to know them and try to understand the underlying causes of why they are turning to criminality.

They also want other organisations in the area to lend their support and offer alternatives to criminality, whether that is employment, exercising through sport and gym work or apprenticeships.

Mr Swinburne explained how hard it is to offer an alternative to the rush the teenagers were getting from "violence and madness".

"If you do intervention for an hour and look through a PowerPoint it's powerful for maybe a day,” he said.

"We want to embed things and let their voices be heard. Violence and madness are hard to top. They get a buzz out of it. We are trying everything we can to put something else there, whether that is work or education."

Officers admitted they were concerned for the hundreds of young people they have not had a chance to speak to, and they believe that their programme needs to be replicated around the country, admitting awareness of their work is crucial to spread the word.

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Mr Swinburne said: "We get, on average, about 100 young people a month. How many are there across the country that don't get support?"

Ms Pryde added: "Having custody navigators around the country is 100% something we would support.

"It's quite unnerving to think we are the only ones providing this."