Cuckooing: The exploitation of vulnerable adults

16 October 2018

London Borough of BarnetChristalla Tanglis

The Cuckoo bird has a well-known characteristic of laying its eggs in another birds nest. New waves of Cuckoos are evolving in our society, shaped in drug related criminals targeting the most vulnerable members of our communities, who fall victim, often without realisation, to Cuckooing. 

There is always that one case in social work that has an impact on you. I was faced with this just over a year ago when I was allocated a case of a young male in his 40s who had self-discharged from hospital following an assault by three men. Police raised concern that he was a vulnerable adult and would benefit from social work input. I will refer to him as Mike*.

As my journey began working with Mike, I was drawn into a world of the unknown. Mike lived alone in a council property after his father became terminally ill and was placed in a care home. Information from the police included previous arrests of Mike for offensive weapons and drug use. As I arranged to meet him for an assessment I developed a fear for my own wellbeing; Mike had been assaulted several times outside his own property and I started to question what risks I would be putting myself in if I visited. In the end I visited Mike for assessment in the presence of his father at the care home.

Mike denied being a drug user, he denied knowing his attackers or why they were targeting him, his wish was to move home to feel safe but to an area that would allow him to visit his father daily. His father’s request to me was to support Mike to achieve this, expressing that he was holding onto life until he knew Mike was safe. One of the biggest fears I had in my work with Mike was that one day he would be attacked so badly it could be fatal. 

Mike presented as dishevelled. He had a lack of use in his right arm due to a stroke some years earlier and his left arm in plaster cast following assault. Dirty clothes, dirty hair, strong body odour; I knew Mike was lying when he said he did not use drugs due to the distinct body odour. I had learnt some years ago this is a result of drug use through heroin and crack cocaine seeping through the skin. Mike also presented with a learning difficulty.

As I began to speak to other agencies involved with Mike, it became clear that there was more to the story. Anti-social behaviour teams in housing were fully aware of Mike, however were unable to assist him until he disclosed who was targeting him. And then a second police report detailed there had been an attempted break in at Mike’s home with threats of violence and he had managed to lock himself in a room and call police. Mike feared returning home.

And then came a moment whilst I was at home watching TV. There was mention of Cuckooing, the crime targeting vulnerable adults in our communities. My immediate thought, ‘that’s what Mike is victim to’. As I began to research Cuckooing it all fell into place and suddenly I understood why Mike feared admitting he knew who his attackers were.

Cuckooing is a term used when criminal gangs target the most isolated, vulnerable members of the community, befriending them with the intention of taking over their homes to deal drugs and carry out other criminal activities. Those that tend to be targeted and exploited are current and ex drug users, or have a mental health, physical or learning disability. There is no age limit to those being targeted and older adults that are socially isolated can become easy targets with tactics of befriending, moving in and then taking over. The sole purpose is to befriend a vulnerable person, who normally lives alone, with the end goal of taking over their homes. Tactics used include building up a drug debt and then when the individual reaches a point of not being able to pay that debt, the exploitation grows to the point of threats and actions of violence that the vulnerable person becomes too frightened to seek help.

Cuckooing can take on many forms. For example, the older person who may live alone, have no family or friend support network, feel socially isolated and lonely and look for friendships in any form, becoming targets to those that have picked up on their vulnerability. They believe they have gained a friend allowing the person to stay at their home, without realising that drug activity is taking place or that they are being taken advantage of. Or there are cases where a female used to befriend a vulnerable male with the idea that they are their girlfriend; the girlfriend herself is likely to be victim of exploitation almost becoming the gangs bait. Her role would be to introduce her friends into the vulnerable adult’s home and then the process of Cuckooing will begin.

Cuckooing has also been closely linked to ‘County Lines’ that has been prevalent in recent times. It relates to how gang members who cross the border of their county into another county, with the intention of setting up shop to sell drugs and part of this process is identifying a victim they can cuckoo. It is key to recognise that victims are manipulated due to their vulnerability; they feel trapped, finding themselves in a difficult and dangerous situation.

I had a chance meeting with Mike some months later after he had been moved to emergency temporary accommodation; the difference in him was phenomenal to see. He was well kempt and looked like he had put on some weight. That strong body odour that I remembered so well had gone. I remember saying to him ‘keep doing what you’re doing as you look so well’ and it was instantly satisfying to see what he had achieved. And that was with a simple move of home. No longer was he in fear, no longer was he caught up in vicious circle of drug taking and drug debt, no longer was he being exploited.

I can’t say that Mike will not become target again in the future, but what I can say is my involvement highlighted how easy it can be to form a judgement on the presenting information and by doing this I would have been failing him. Mike was not just a drug user, Mike was a young man, a son with a terminally ill father, who was being exploited as he lived alone and dabbled in drugs, he was the perfect target for Cuckooing. Within social work, we must remember that individuals may have many stories and our role is to explore whether there could be something else going on.

‘They’ve already bought their way in, they’ve come in with a smile, they’ve said they’re going to do you a favour, you bought the line. You know it’s your fault, you know you’ve let them in, it’s not like they’ve kicked the door in. They come in as friends, they’re going to look after you, they’re going to make life a bit better, you ain't going to wake up sick every morning. This is how they get in. They’re your friends. And you know they’re not but they have all the power.’ Victim of Cuckooing

*name replaced with a pseudonym.

About the author

Christalla Tanglis is an Assessment and Enablement Officer from the Urgent Response Team at the London Borough of Barnet.

Related Research in Practice for Adults resources

Criminal Exploitation: County Lines and the impact on adults – Webinar

County Lines activity is a growing area of concern for both Children's and Adults' Services.

This webinar looked in detail at County Lines and the impact on adults who become involved through Cuckooing and other forms of exploitation. It will be presented by Tony Saggers, the previous Head of Threat & Intelligence for Drug Trafficking at the National Crime Agency and co-national lead for County Lines.

Please note you will need to be a Research in Practice for Adults subscriber to access the Webinar recording.

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