The child victims of the UK’s EncroChat house raids

When law enforcement agencies swooped on households around the UK last year after hacking the mobile app, EncroChat, children were often the collateral damage.

Police raid an undisclosed location in the UK as part of Operation Venetic, a series of raids and house arrests carried out last year after authorities hacked the messaging app Encrochat [File: Handout/Police Service of Northern Ireland via AP Photo]

As six-year-old Eva* lay asleep in her bed one night last July, she heard angry shouting from downstairs. There were loud thuds, as though someone was kicking through the front door of the family’s two-bedroom home in Merseyside, northwest England. She hid under her duvet cover, as six men wearing black balaclavas and holding guns ran into her bedroom.

One of the men yelled at her to place her hands above the blanket, but she was frozen in fear. She screamed as he ripped the duvet from her. The men began to tear her bedroom apart.

The raid on Eva’s home was one of the hundreds carried out during Operation Venetic; the National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation through which Dutch, French and United Kingdom law enforcement gained access to tens of thousands of EncroChat messages. This operation – carried out primarily from April to July 2020 – resulted in 746 arrests, including that of Eva’s father who was charged with class A drug supply.

For weeks, front-page headlines appeared, accompanied by dramatic images of large groups of officers smashing through the doors of suburban homes at dawn, and men being hauled out of them in only their underwear. The leading news outlets published a constant stream of photos and videos all summer long, with law enforcement officials running into properties with MP5 submachine guns and anonymity-preserving balaclavas.

Now shut down, EncroChat was an encrypted messaging platform operating on modified Android devices. Users paid approximately 600 pounds ($833) for a three-month subscription under the false belief that the messages sent on it would be inaccessible to anyone other than the intended recipient. The UK law enforcement agencies claim this service was used by criminals illicitly trading in drugs and firearms, though the firm has not responded to these allegations.

Dutch, French and UK law enforcement gained access to tens of thousands of messages on the encrypted messaging app EncroChat [Screen grab/Al Jazeera]

Last December, seven non-uniformed officers from one of the UK’s Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCU) – which work alongside the NCA and police forces – carried out a dawn raid on my house near St Mawes, in the southwest of England. Brandishing a search warrant, the men left me with no choice but to allow them entry. They asserted that they would force their way in if I did not step aside.

The ROCU officers claimed to be searching for my ex-partner, who had not actually lived with me and our child for more than a year – though they were adamant they had evidence to the contrary. He was suspected of committing a crime they said, but declined to provide further detail. Instead, they asked for all of my electronic devices, so they could download the contents onto a handheld machine for analysis at a later date.

Despite repeated requests, the officials refused to let me keep a copy of the search warrant, so I have no official record of what went on that day or even why they wanted to find the father of my child. And while they eventually left without finding anything, it was undeniably traumatic for a lone woman with a toddler to discover her isolated, rural home was surrounded by armed men at 5am.

This unexpected intrusion into our safe space – by authorities acting for the state – led me to investigate the effect of home invasions on suspects and their loved ones in the UK. I have since interviewed 18 families of EncroChat defendants, including wives, siblings and parents. They have spoken in detail about their experiences, and explained how the raids on their homes have affected them in the immediate aftermath of the event and in the months that followed.

Some of the defendants have been charged with using EncroChat to facilitate drug importations from countries such as the Netherlands and Pakistan, while others had been accused of using it to arrange the import of firearms and ammunition. There were a few people who maintained their innocence and claimed they relied on the platform to engage in legitimate business, such as wholesale clothing and IT equipment.

A police raid at an undisclosed location in the UK as part of Operation Venetic in 2020 [File: Handout/Police Service of Northern Ireland via AP Photo]

As an investigative journalist, I have occasionally used EncroChat to speak to contacts wishing to maintain anonymity, so I could certainly relate to respondents’ frustrations over the NCA claims that the network was used “exclusively by criminals”.

It is difficult to establish how many children have been affected by house raids, as the NCA is exempt from Freedom of Information requests and thus does not have to publicly declare how many domestic premises are searched annually. And, similarly, a series of Freedom of Information requests by the UK charity, the Prison Advice and Care Trust, from 2016 found that no English police forces maintain searchable records of the number of house raids carried out – nor do they record the ages of those witnessing the searches.

And, while the EncroChat raids stood out due to their high-profile nature, the police and the NCA do not simply focus on the houses of suspected drug dealers – law enforcement commonly targets “illegal immigrants”, including refugees – with aggressive dawn raids and arrests, followed by removal to a detention centre. Alleged tax-evaders, money launderers and firearms importers have also been the subject of recent house searches.

‘People began to boot the door in’

Rachel Jones*, 36, was heavily pregnant when the police raided the Manchester townhouse she shares with her husband, a self-employed company director in his early 40s, and their three children, at about 1pm one day in late June last year. The couple, who were with their three-year-old at the time, had just returned from an antenatal appointment and Rachel was making lunch while her husband and son were playing upstairs. Their other children were at school.

She tells me: “I shouted that food was ready, and my son came running downstairs. Just as he reached the bottom step, which was less than a metre from the front door, people began to loudly boot the door in.”

The toddler shrieked “daddy!”, but Rachel got to the door before her husband and heard shouts of “open up, it’s the police”. She says: “I opened the door, and was physically pushed out of the way, as 15 officers rushed into our home. My child was uncontrollably crying and the officers were shouting loudly.”

It was the first time Rachel’s son had witnessed aggression – he had never even heard his parents argue before. She says: “I grabbed him and tried to get out of the house, so I could leave him safely with a neighbour. But I wasn’t allowed to leave the property. Instead, we were forced to stay in my bedroom for five hours, supervised by a female police officer.”

Rachel’s 14-year-old son arrived back at the house part-way through the raid. He has severe learning disabilities and was terrified, but the police, she says, “brusquely searched every inch of his body” without explaining what was going on.

Parents say that the incidents of police wearing balaclavas forcing their way into their homes has been traumatising for their children [Screen grab/Al Jazeera]

Based on EncroChat intelligence, Rachel’s husband was arrested and he is currently in prison awaiting trial on drug supply charges. There were no drugs or weapons at the property, though the NCA seized items of value, including clothes and electronics.

Under the UK’s Proceeds of Crime Act [2002], NCA and police officers are legally entitled to seize any items they believe may have been funded by criminal activity, without the need for a defendant to be proven guilty of a crime.

The armed raid has left a lasting effect on the family. Rachel’s three-year-old son now experiences night terrors and wakes up screaming for his dad. He dreams that the police are in his bedroom, taking his father and toys away. She says it is impossible to convince him it won’t happen again. School teachers have told Rachel that the police raid has impacted her teen’s mental health and wellbeing as well. They say he is like a different kid – quiet and withdrawn.

It has taken a huge toll on Rachel too. She says, “It feels like I’m being stabbed in the heart, that I can’t help my children.”

‘They kicked open the kids’ door’

A house raid was an equally traumatic and stressful experience for mum-of-two Tina Johnson*, who lives in London. Her household woke to shouting and banging, as law enforcement officers smashed through the front door of the family’s two-bedroom apartment at 5am one morning in the summer of 2020.

Five officers ran into her bedroom, where she had been sleeping with her partner, an engineer in his 40s. She recalls: “I’m physically disabled – with severe arthritis and joint mobility problems. I tried to sit up in bed, but an officer held me down by the arms. His colleague grabbed my partner by the throat and pushed him heavily onto the floor.”

Tina says: “There was an unbelievable amount of screaming from the officers, after they kicked open the kids’ bedroom door. I later learned they were furious that my eight-year-old daughter wouldn’t place her hands above the bed covers – they hadn’t realised she’s partially deaf and unable to hear them without hearing aids.”

The children had never experienced a home invasion before and were petrified, Tina says now. There were police in every room, and the officers led Tina’s partner out of the building without letting the children say goodbye. He was later charged with conspiracy to supply drugs and is still in prison, waiting for his case to go to trial.

Despite searching the apartment for several hours, NCA officers found no drugs, cash or firearms. Tina says her normally immaculate home was left with possessions strewn everywhere.

Tina heard no news about her partner until the following night when a solicitor telephoned and explained that he had been charged with illicit drug supply as the NCA had discovered EncroChat messages they believed to be “indicative of dealing”.

A photo of a family home that was raided by police in the north of England [Al Jazeera]

Like other relatives of EncroChat defendants, she was not allowed to speak to him for three weeks. “Imagine trying to console distraught children when you have no idea where their loved one is or what could be happening,” she says. Ordinarily, people in custody within the UK are allowed to remain in telephone contact with close family after their arrest, but this does not seem to have been the case for many of those on remand following the Encro hack.

Nowadays, Tina says, her young daughter grabs her legs and hides every time she sees a police officer in the street. She panics when she hears a noise outside the apartment. “She worries the officers have come back to take her mum too,” says Tina.

Like Rachel’s son, Tina’s children have both become quiet and withdrawn at school. She says: “I try so hard to console my children and reassure them it’s OK, but it doesn’t work. I spoke to a therapist who was mortified that the NCA does this while under-16s are present, and believes the kids are suffering from PTSD.”

Tina’s 14-year-old son, who has autism, has struggled to participate in daily life since witnessing the house raid. He has started self-harming with sharp objects and often locks himself in the toilets while at school. She adds: “He doesn’t sleep well any more, and I often hear him pacing the floorboards. It keeps me awake, as I fear he could hurt himself during the night.”

According to the UK’s National Autistic Society, children with autism often struggle to cope with sudden change and extreme emotions. This means an unexpected event, such as a house raid, can be especially traumatic.

Tracy and the other mothers I interviewed say they find they constantly need to reassure their children that they are safe, while coping with feelings of trauma themselves. Tracy says: “My daughter told me she was sad because the police pulled the blanket off her bed, while she was hiding behind it. I hugged her and said it’s normal to feel that way, but I cried my eyes out after she went to bed. How can they treat innocent children so badly?”

‘Our front door was smashed to pieces’

Gemma Brown*, 30, is another mum who is coping with the painful aftermath of a police raid, while also helping a young child recover from the incident.

Seven armed men dressed entirely in black and wearing balaclavas, she says, forced their way into her family’s Manchester townhouse at dawn one morning in July last year. Gemma says officers physically dragged her stunned partner from their bed and out of the house into the street. She recalls: “Only their eyes were visible, and they were carrying guns – it was horrific. They knew I had a young child down the hall, and made me wake him up.”

The mum explains: “The men claimed to be NCA officers and forced me to sit on the sofa with my toddler in my arms. They stood directly in front of us with guns pointed in our direction [still wearing balaclavas].” Gemma and her son were instructed to remain still, while a dog jumped onto their laps and sniffed them, presumably to ensure they were not concealing drugs, firearms or cash. Meanwhile, their colleagues spent several hours searching every part of the building to see if there was any evidence of illegal activity – but they found nothing. They did confiscate electronics, however, including the iPad which Gemma uses to teach her son songs. Her partner remains in prison, while he waits for a trial based almost entirely on EncroChat messages.

“Our front door had been smashed to pieces and cold air was blowing into the house. I wanted to phone my family, as I felt frightened – but they wouldn’t allow it,” Gemma says. After the officers left, she went to the DIY store – with her two-year-old – to buy materials to board up her door, until she could find a builder who would make her home secure again.

The NCA offered no follow-up support to Gemma and her son, nor was any offered to any of the other families interviewed for this article. There was no liaison officer or general advice on coping with the aftermath of a parental arrest – not even a leaflet to signpost them to relevant support services, they say.

Some of the families interviewed – including Gemma’s – received a visit from their local children’s services department a few days after the raid, at the request of the NCA or the police. A social worker asked Gemma a long series of questions, such as whether her son had witnessed any form of violence within or outside her home. But, she says, he had never seen any brutality until armed police invaded his home that day.

The aftermath

Ten months later, the house raid is still affecting the family. Gemma has flashbacks to the moment her partner, who is now in prison awaiting trial on drug charges, was pulled from his bed. And each evening, her toddler falls asleep hugging a cushion printed with a photo of his dad. He no longer sleeps well, instead waking his mum at all hours of the night.

She says: “Our son has hearing difficulties, so he’s very behind developmentally and finds it hard to interact with people. He had the best bond ever with his dad – they just understood one another. It’s such an awful situation.”

The NCA was invited to respond to the specific claims raised in the article, and its spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “The National Crime Agency and its policing partners are committed to protecting the public from individuals involved in serious and organised crime. We carefully assess all available intelligence prior to carrying out any arrest. Tactics used will depend on various factors, including the level of risk associated with each individual and the need to secure evidence. Officers also work closely with Social Services and other organisations who offer support to families.”

The London Metropolitan Police shows cash worth 5.1 million pounds ($7.1m) that was seized as part of Operation Venetic last year [File: Handout/Metropolitan Police via AP]

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) acknowledges that the forced removal of a parent has a significant effect on children. Young people often feel exposed and vulnerable after witnessing their dad or mum being disempowered. And as noted by the IACP, it is natural for a child’s immediate reactions to include feelings of helplessness, bitterness and anger towards the arresting officers and law enforcement in general.

The IACP also says there is a strong correlation between how a parental arrest is handled and the future relationship between a child and the police – children with a negative early experience of law enforcement are statistically more likely to become victims or perpetrators of crime. The association says it is beneficial, therefore, for officers to spend time with children in these challenging circumstances, as assistance from the police can create lasting impressions on children of all ages.

One young child from a family interviewed for this article witnessed NCA officers cutting open the front door using a chainsaw. His father was immediately arrested on suspicion of importing class A drugs from overseas. The family say the incident caused fear and anxiety for everyone present but, once again, no weapons or illicit drugs were found inside the property.

All of the families said that NCA and police officers failed to explain the purpose of the raid to children – either during the raid itself or later on. Law enforcement agencies did not tell the children it was not their fault, nor did they state that the arrested parent would be looked after or kept safe. There was no referral to relevant charities or support services, even though mothers, children and extended family had witnessed state officials using violence.

Some of the families said they felt that officers treated their children with contempt and hostility, while others said that during their conversations with children, NCA and police officials seemed unable to relate to the young people present and made inappropriate small talk about school or the weather, instead of explaining what was taking place.

‘They assume the apple never rots far from the tree’

Policing expert Adrian Barton from Bath Spa University says he believes the needs of a family during a house raid and arrest should be considered more closely. He says: “From the law enforcement perspective, there is an underlying tension between minimising trauma to a suspect’s family, and the need to make an arrest and secure any potential evidence – but there’s also a very real need to consider the impact of crime on offenders’ families, who we sometimes refer to as hidden victims.”

He adds: “From the initial house raid through to prison visits with metal detectors and full-body searches, families are treated with suspicion. And it’s important to remember that these people are often entirely innocent.”

Barton says that without widespread societal trust in law enforcement agencies, “policing by consent” is impossible and public safety suffers. For instance, children who fear or distrust the police are less likely to report being a victim of crime.

And, as for the black clothing and balaclavas worn by raiding officers, he notes: “Senior NCA and police officers aren’t typically required to wear the traditional black and white uniform, even when carrying out house raids. Instead, they often wear black clothing to match their uniformed colleagues. The balaclavas allow them to preserve their anonymity.”

A total of 746 arrests were made after authorities hacked EncroChat [Screen grab/Al Jazeera]

Consultant forensic psychologist Dr Sohom Das of A Psych For Sore Minds – a popular YouTube channel about mental health and crime – says: “Traumatic experiences can undoubtedly impact children’s future mental health and development. A high proportion of children will go on to develop mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and substance abuse. A small but significant cohort might develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), particularly if they believed that their lives and family’s lives were in danger during the trauma.

“PTSD is characterised by reliving the ordeal over and over again – usually in the form of flashbacks – as well as experiencing an emotional numbness, and hyper-vigilance which is a constant background anxiety reflected by being very easily startled,” he said.

In terms of future behaviour, Das believes the most seriously affected children might eventually become violent themselves, as they see this as an acceptable way of conflict resolution or to express frustration. Other common outcomes include deliberate self-harm or substance use.

Despite this, a Scottish Institute of Policing report – published in 2020 – showed that very few UK police forces provide regular training on how to reduce the traumatic effect of raids on children.

Barton argues that, for the benefit of society as a whole, including suspects and their families, the NCA and the police service should – at the very least – record the number of house raids carried out while children are present, so we can identify the scale of this hidden problem. He also says there needs to be a concerted effort to raise awareness of the traumatic effect of home invasions on families, as well as the longer term effects of this.

Law enforcement should be trained to minimise children’s emotional distress during a raid, from using appropriate non-verbal communication to spending time explaining what is going on, Barton and Das said. Children need to know it is not their fault and that their loved ones will be safe. Similarly, many young people appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent or sibling, Das adds.

According to Barton: “Research suggests that it’s beneficial for law enforcement to offer regular training on practical techniques designed to minimise distress to innocent children. These processes may include assessing whether it’s possible to carry out the raid when kids aren’t present; and using violent tactics – such as chain-sawing through doors – only as a last resort.”

“Similarly, NCA and police officers could use an appropriate tone of voice and adapt their body language around young people, which is something that often gets forgotten in the heat and stress of the moment,” he says.

These measures are not expensive or time-consuming, but they can make a world of difference to how children and teenagers perceive a traumatic situation. “Because right now,” a mum who experienced an EncroChat house raid dryly notes, “it feels as though most police and NCA officers assume the apple never rots far from the tree. Our needs are cast aside because they write us off as a bad family.”

*Names have been changed for anonymity

Source: Al Jazeera