County lines gangs are lavishing single mums with gifts and cash to recruit their children as drug mules.
Youth worker Matthew Norford, 37, a former member of Manchester mob the Rusholme Crew Gangsters, admitted he befriended a lonely single mother to use her son to sell cannabis, crack and heroin.
"Mums get groomed, most of them single parents with kids on the street,” he said.
"If you’re poor and I’m helping you weekly you might know I’m doing something wrong with your son.
"I’ve got him selling drugs. But you also know if you stop me I’ll withdraw the money.’’
Norford said his first target had a 15-year-old son whom he tasked with selling quarter-ounce bags of cannabis.
He gave the boy’s mum £50-a-week for groceries.
Over four years Norford said he spent £50,000 on buying her food, kitting her two sons out in designer clothes and paying her household bills.
"Her laminate floor was old, the Sky subscription was cut off, she had fabric chairs that were ripped - I saw all that and began to provide for her,’’ he said.
In time his gang used her home to store Class A drugs, a pistol and shotgun.
Another Norford targeted ended up in jail for keeping ammunition in her home.
He left leave the gang after his older brother, also a member, was stabbed to death in 2011.
Now he runs 1Message which mentors vulnerable young people and trains police, teachers and parents in how to deal with county lines gangs.
Professor Coral Dando, a police officer turned academic, has encountered similar cases in Birmingham over the past 18 months.
She said they hone in on parents they see struggling to bring up their children.
"The family might not have a car or the kids aren’t dressed the same as the other children in their neighbourhoods,’’ she said.
"They spot them and they move towards grooming their parents and, in return, they’re brought into the households.’’
Dando, a professor of psychology at Westminster University, also said parents were being deceived by `county lines friendships’ in which older students who are gang members pretend to mentor struggling children.
National Crime Agency county lines’ chief Nikki Holland, said: "These networks prey on young people and those who are vulnerable to fuel their criminal enterprises, inflicting misery on those who fall victim to their exploitation.
"People exploited in this way, which can include parents and guardians of vulnerable children, may be groomed, coerced or forced into criminal activity and exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse.
"They often don’t see themselves as victims or know how to seek help. It’s up to all of us to spot the signs.’’