When Johnnie invited someone who he thought was his friend into his house on a rainy afternoon in London, he thought the man would only stay for a couple of days.
By the time this ‘friend’ left four years later, he had stolen thousands of pounds and used Johnnie’s home to take and sell drugs.
Johnnie, who has a mild learning disability, had been the victim of ‘cuckooing’. This is where someone takes over your house, usually for crime and exploitation.
Cuckooing is not yet recognised as a crime but is linked to criminal behaviour.
The way it often happens is a person develops a relationship with someone to enter their home and commit a crime. They gain control over the person – whether because that person is addicted to drugs, in debt or as part of their ‘friendship’. Then other people may also move into the house.
“I thought he was my friend, until Marcus (support worker) explained the situation. In a way he’s not my friend, all he wants is the money for the drugs
According to Helen Eyers, Safeguarding Lead at LDN London, people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to cuckooing as they don’t always understand when they are being exploited: “Sometimes people with learning disabilities can be overly trusting,” Helen says. “The people who choose to exploit will often target the most vulnerable in society.”
Johnnie had seen this ‘friend’ begging outside Sainsbury’s near to his flat, when he invited him to stay. “I used to see him all the time there. It was raining one day, that’s when I asked him to come around. But I didn’t know he was going to stay so long.”
At first Johnnie liked him and thought he was his friend, but the man soon coerced him into lending money, which he would use for drugs including cocaine and heroin, which he would take in the flat and wouldn’t pay the money back.
He continued to stay in the flat for long after the two days. At the time Johnnie didn’t see it as unusual for him to continue living there, saying he “didn’t think about it”.
Then other people began to come in to the flat to sell drugs. By the time they left, there were drugs all over the floor.
The support team now believe this man stole thousands of pounds from Johnnie. Johnnie never reported this to the police because he thought that this man was his friend.
At the time Johnnie didn’t understand he was being exploited.
It was only later when his support provider changed and he spoke to his new support worker at LDN London that he realised: “I thought he was my friend, until Marcus (support worker) explained the situation. In a way he’s not my friend, all he wants is the money for the drugs… If it wasn’t for Marcus talking to me, I don’t think I would have realised to be honest. I don’t think I would have seen it.”
Over the four years when the cuckooing took place, Johnnie struggled with money, he says, “I wasn’t really coping. I’d be lucky to get by. It was desperate at the end.” He also withdrew and stopped seeing friends and family.
This happened when Johnnie wasn’t getting support from LDN London. He had previously got some regular help from the charity but had made his own decision to stop paying for it.
Johnnie has a mild learning disability, which means he does not receive money from the government for regular support. Government cuts since 2010s have meant that fewer people with mild learning disabilities now get regular help. If he had received more support, the exploitation could have been spotted and stopped much sooner.
Before this happened, Jonnie lived a full life, with lots of hobbies. He volunteered and made arts and crafts (mainly cross-stitch patterns) which still decorate the walls of his house.. He stopped doing this as he ran out of money when he was cuckooed.
It was raining one day, that’s when I asked him to come around. But I didn’t know he was going to stay so long.”
Now that he is getting more support, Johnnie has reunited with his family and speaks to them more often. He is planning to catch up with old friends.
“I’m glad it’s back to normal now,” he says. He can look after his own money and has recently been able to buy a washing machine for his flat.
He is able to spend money on things he enjoys. Before he was cuckooed, Johnnie dreamed of watching a Manchester United football match. He has tickets to watch them play in December and is planning to go with his brother.
This has been a difficult story for Johnnie to tell. That is partly because he is undergoing painful treatment for throat cancer, which makes it harder for him to speak, but also because it was a traumatic experience.
He wants to warn people about cuckooing, so it doesn’t happen to them as well, he says.
“Hopefully if they listen to my story, they might get some ideas. They might learn and look out for people like that. That’s the main reason I’m doing it, to help other people.”
LDN London is committed to safeguarding:
Helen Eyers, Safeguarding Lead at LDN London says, “LDN London works hard to prevent this kind of crime by supporting people to understand what keeping safe means and how to spot when things may not be right, or when someone is doing something that they do not like or want. We also offer safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and to raise concerns with a dedicated support worker or through our community hubs.”
Helen adds that LDN London supports people who might struggle to protect themselves from abuse. “We provide training, guidance, and support to all our staff so they can spot and respond to any worries or concerns that they have about someone they support. We believe it’s crucial for individuals with learning disabilities to have their voices heard. We work to make safeguarding resources accessible to everyone. People with learning disabilities deserve to live without abuse, neglect, or discrimination and to know when they’re being treated poorly and who to talk to can help stop any abuse.”
Resources and information about preventing cuckooing and spotting the signs: