Bringing drug debt into the spotlight

By Daniel Phelps | 18 March 2022

Sometimes you just have to think big – and locally there is no bigger screen than the largest screening room of our local Empire multiplex in Walthamstow.

After weeks of planning, filming, and editing, I’d just watched the finished product of our in-house training video on drug debt, based on the real-life experiences of our young people for the first time.

Tackling this subject was essential. As a local authority, we have become increasingly aware of this alarming problem affecting some of our borough’s youth

We recognised that drug debt, often brought about by police arrest and confiscation, was often hidden- a taboo that criminally exploited children could not speak of due to fear of reprisals

What we wanted was to create a film explaining the circumstances and signs to consider, to assist all safeguarding professionals to be curious about drug debt, identify the risks and consider the best professional response.

Now, we like to do things differently at Waltham Forest LBC and trust is a big part of that.

We wanted a collaboration between local young people and our children’s service to tell this story from the street up.

This approach gave some of our children an opportunity to participate in a creative media project they couldn’t have imagined, all part of Waltham Forest LBC’s legacy as London’s first Borough of Culture in 2019.

So, with a vision, a few key messages, and the instruction to create something exciting and memorable, we asked our young people to explain to us what drug debt was all about.

The result, as I hope you will agree, was powerful.

Let’s be frank, it’s not often that you can feel genuinely moved by a training video.

We have featured young people in our outreach work before and it has already set a high benchmark, and will continue to give them a platform to speak out.

The film tells the story of those who are so often ignored and is an explainer for those who are safeguarding adolescents.

What had been achieved is something that everyone who took part in it, can be very proud.

The subject was familiar to many of them and one that lots of you too will recognise, as it affects almost every corner of our country.

For Debt Bondage, to give drug debt its other name, is a form of modern-day slavery that is entrapping many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged youth.

What made this film so compelling is that it was informed by the young stars themselves, based on what they had seen and experienced first-hand.

The film, 5:59 One Choice. Two Futures, tells the story of a young man called Riddim who is arrested for low-level drug-dealing.

The storyline was led by our young people – it was important from all sides that this was very much a collaboration led by the young people themselves.

The dramatic device of the youth practitioner answering the phone or not was taken from the young person’s view – this is a complex world, one with and without that official support network to help and guide them.

After our first viewing we realised that this would be a subject that would be of more general interest.

And so on a winter evening, the red carpet was rolled out at the Walthamstow Empire cinema and our very own paparazzi were there to capture the film’s stars as they made their entrance.

It will be a night to remember for both our young people and our staff, but more importantly, it leaves us with a message for us all to remember.

Daniel Phelps is corporate director for children's social care at Waltham Forest LBC

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