Police seize huge haul of alcohol and drugs seized from children in Northern Ireland
Shocking pictures have emerged showing hundreds of litres of alcoholic drinks and drugs seized from children in anti-social behaviour hotspots across Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon.
The haul was seized on Friday as part of Operation Snapper, relaunched by the PSNI to safeguard young people and combat anti-social behaviour.
In just one day police spoke to over 230 children and seized items including 200 suspected prescription painkillers, cannabis bongs made from coke bottles, 74 litres of cider and 22 litres of Buckfast.
Also confiscated were beers, 16 litres of vodka, one bottle of whiskey, 24 bottles of alcopops and five bottles of wine.
In 21 drugs searches there were three finds of class B drugs (cannabis), one class A seizure and one class C find. Among the finds was suspected methedrone or cocaine seized from adults.
As a result of the operation, 15 referrals were made to social services while other children were referred to an Alcohol Support Programme and several were taken home to their parents by police.
The seizure came less than five weeks after 15-year-old schoolgirl Caitlin White died near the Corcrain estate in Portadown in a suspected drug-related incident.
Chief Inspector Jon Burrows, who led Friday's operation, said drink and drug abuse is leaving children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and grooming. He said he hoped the massive seizure will act as a "wake up call".
"The children taking alcohol would have been aged from 13-16, while we would regularly find children as young as 13 taking drugs," he said.
"It's a case of being proactive-over the last number of weeks. We have been looking at hotspots out of public view where young people are gathering - wooded areas, behind buildings, out of view areas.
"This has coincided with the GCSEs finishing and the start of the summer holidays. This is about safeguarding young people. There is a huge vulnerability around young children out of public view mixing alcohol and drugs.
"One of the techniques that predators have used with young people being groomed or sexually exploited is to use alcohol or drugs.
"During the operation we found children who were very vulnerable - there was a 14-year-old in Waringstown who couldn't stand straight at 6pm. All those children who we assisted were vulnerable to being assaulted, sexually abused, alcohol poisoning, or injuring or hurting themselves in the woods."
Chief Inspector Burrows said that many parents were completely unaware where their offspring were.
"Time and time again parents were shocked as they thought their son or daughter was in a completely different location, and they were actually in a wood in a different town drinking alcohol," he added.
"Also, children are starting to drink earlier in the day so that they have sobered up by the time they get home. There is a need for vigilance around the drinks cupboard and medication at home, and some may purchase substances from the internet. It comes back to parental supervision. This is happening across Northern Ireland."
DUP MLA Carla Lockhart said she had witnessed first-hand distressing scenes of intoxicated youngsters, having accompanied youth workers on patrol.
"It's quite alarming to see the amount of alcohol and drugs confiscated from young people, which seems indicative of underlying issues," she said.
"I saw one individual who was quite badly beaten, another who had taken drugs.
"Young girls could easily be taken advantage of. I would encourage parents to know where their kids are. This has been an important awareness-raising operation."
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said that local residents had been left "angry" and "frightened" by the young people's behaviour.
"There is a lot of rowdiness and in some areas they play games of throwing bottles over perimeter fences of schools to see if they can hit buildings or windows," she said.
"There seems to be a lack of responsibility, a lack of respect and a lack of respect for themselves. There have been cuts to youth service provision and outreach services and I think that these need to be reinstated.
"The last thing we want is a lot of young people getting convictions."