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A nine-year-old boy is believed to be the UK's youngest ever crack cocaine dealer.
The primary school student was found by police and picked up for possession of the Class A drug with intent to supply.
But the boy, from Cambridgeshire, could not be charged as he was under 10 years old, which is the legal age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales.
Details the boy's background have not been released but experts say that it was very likely he was being made to carry drugs for other people, possibly a sibling or even a parent.
Research done by The Mirror found that nearly 16,000 crime reports relating to suspects aged nine or younger were logged by police in the past five years.
The actual total is expected to be far higher as only 29 out of 43 police forces handed over the required information.
Ex-offender Junior Smart is among those overseeing the Home Office's new youth crime purge.
He told The Mirror: "This nine-year-old will almost definitely have been in the company of an adult who didn't want to take the risk."
Junior has been hailed for his anti-gang work with the St Giles Trust in London, he said: "When I first started doing this 15 years ago I was shocked by the 10-year-olds on our caseload.
“Now I don’t even bat an eyelid. They are getting younger and younger.
“They are used to carry the drugs for a family member or friend. One of the most common things these children say to me is that 'we thought these people cared about us.'
"Since Covid hit, there have been thousands upon thousands of families out of work who weren't entitled to furlough.
"If they see a way of making money they will take that risk. Since the pandemic started, we have seen even more children exploited by drug gangs."
Further startling cases exposed in The Mirror's Freedom of Information request include a six-year-old girl questioned by Greater Manchester Police over a burglary.
In Hertfordshire, a seven-year-old boy attacked a police officer while Greater Manchester Police dealt with a girl of seven who used a knife to make threats in school.
Esther Rantzen, the founder of Childline, said: "All these children are at serious risk and in need of protection."
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