RUTHLESS drug gangs are recruiting Oxfordshire children into a 'horrifying' cycle of exploitation.

A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary will air tonight, exposing harrowing tales of teenagers groomed into drug crime in our county.

Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police gave crews an insight into the youngsters sucked into so-called 'county lines' dealing, as new official figures reveal a rise in gang-related cases seen by social services.

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Detective Chief Inspector Lewis Prescott-Mayling said: "County drugs lines have a horrifying impact on children, their families and the community around them.

"By working closely with social services and local organisations, we are determined to ensure that these crimes are stopped and vulnerable children are protected."

The documentary, called Britain's Child Drug Runners, is set to air tonight at 10pm and focuses on areas including Oxford and Banbury.

The county council has revealed that it knows of about 280 children who are at 'significant risk' of exploitation, who are being supported by its teams across social care, early help and youth justice.

New Department for Education figures reveal that Oxfordshire social workers are seeing a rise in the number of cases related to gangs.

Banbury Cake:

A screen shot from the Dispatches: Britain's Child Drug Runners programme. Picture: Channel 4/ Dispatches

In the year ending March 2019, county social workers linked 79 child assessments to gangs, up from 67 the previous year.

A further 14 were linked to trafficking, up from seven the year before.

ALSO READ: Social services in Oxfordshire see huge influx of child cases

Hannah Farncombe, the county council's deputy director of children’s social care, said: "Children are often asked to carry drugs or undertake other tasks for the gang, and can end up with drug debts when money or drugs are taken from them, or be tricked into having drug debts by being robbed by gang members.

"They are then subject to threats or actual violence, towards themselves or loved ones, forcing them to continue to work for the gang and maintain their silence.

"They are often terrified and unable to trust anyone who may be trying to help them."

An extract of the programme tweeted by Channel 4 yesterday showed a tearful interview with a mum called Karla, whose son Jacob was recruited by a drug gang at the age of 13.

Three years later, she found him laying dead on his bed, and she believed he took his life.

An inquest into his death is due to be held later this year, the footage reported.

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She said in the video: "It doesn't matter how good a parent you are - if they get hold of your kid, there's nothing you can do about it.

"I'm never going to see him get married or have children. His friends are doing their GSCEs, and he's laid in a mortuary."

Jaiden Vernon, who escaped a county lines gang and has since set up his own clothing brand, also shared his story.

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Jaiden Vernon. Picture: Channel 4/ Dispatches

In an extract posted by Dispatches, he said: "I used to see olders on the estate drive past with their cars, watches - I wanted that.

"I was trapped in a situation, and now I feel free."

Karen Hulston, from the council's family social services team, also features in the programme.

She said children 'from all walks of life' in 'all kinds of locations' are being targeted, although she stressed that those exploited are still in the minority.

Police and social services are urging people to look out for telltale signs.

ALSO READ: County lines drug dealer, 19, hid crack cocaine in boxers

Ms Hulston said: "It’s frightening that many parents and guardians have no idea a child is being groomed, but there are indicators to watch for.

"Signs include unexpected gifts like phones, money, expensive branded clothing, going missing or being absent from school."

She said children might also present behavioural changes such as becoming anxious, aggressive or secretive.

Her colleague Ms Farncombe added: "The gangs thrive on smart phones, taking advantage of the ability to operate covertly and the fact that distance is no longer a barrier to operating drugs markets.

"Offenders exploit children and vulnerable adults who have no profile with the police, taking advantage of their naivety and intimidating them into silence."

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Hannah Farncombe. Pic: OCC

Years ago the high-profile sex grooming case known as Operation Bullfinch exposed a child exploitation ring in Oxfordshire, and authorities were held to account for failing to act quickly enough.

There is now a specialist cross-authority team combatting sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire, also developing practice around drug exploitation and child trafficking.

READ AGAIN: Bullfinch grooming scandal - serious case review

Ms Farncombe said: "Grooming is a very manipulative process that often begins with befriending, the giving of gifts, making young people feel special and then progressing towards coercion and aggressive controls.

“It is important that we start with raising awareness among children, young people and families and enable them to spot the dangers."

Thames Valley Police is also cracking down on serious organised crime through Operation Stronghold, and made more than 100 arrests last month linked to county lines dealing.

A message circulated by officers today said the episode might feature extracts of a police drug taskforce meeting, which took place in Oxford earlier this year at the Ruskin School of Art.

Officers said: "The documentary focuses on Oxfordshire and some of the issues seen in the community of East Oxford.

"This is an important topic and is happening in all areas but is often invisible."

Anyone concerned that they know a victim of drug exploitation can call on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.