County Lines

Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance

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What to do if you are concerned

Any practitioner working with a vulnerable person who they think may be at risk of county lines exploitation should follow their local safeguarding guidance and share this information with local authority social services. If you believe a person is in immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police.

County Line FAQ

This guidance is primarily aimed at frontline staff who work with children, young people and potentially vulnerable adults.

This includes professionals working in education, health, housing, benefits, law enforcement (police) and related partner organisations.

This guidance is also useful for carers and parents, although they are not the primary audience.

It has been produced by the Home Office in co-operation with other Government Departments, National Crime Agency, Local Government Association, National Police Chiefs’ Council, Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime in London.

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults is a geographically widespread form of harm that is a typical feature of county lines activity. It is a harm which is relatively little known about or recognised by those best placed to spot its potential victims.

This guidance is intended to explain the nature of this harm to enable practitioners to recognise its signs and respond appropriately so that potential victims get the support and help they need.

County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons; and the response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations.

The UK Government defines county lines as:

County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities.

Child criminal exploitation is increasingly used to describe this type of exploitation where children are involved, and is defined as:

Child Criminal Exploitation is common in county lines and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

Criminal exploitation of children is broader than just county lines, and includes for instance children forced to work on cannabis farms or to commit theft.

Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:
  • can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;
  • can affect any vulnerable adult over the age of 18 years;
  • can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;
  • can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; and
  • is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm his/her family.

The national picture on county lines continues to develop but there are recorded cases of:
  • children as young as 12 years old being exploited or moved by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area; 15-16 years is the most common age range
  • both males and females being exploited
  • White British children being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection but a person of any ethnicity or nationality may be exploited
  • the use of social media to make initial contact with children and young people
  • class A drug users being targeted so that gangs can takeover their homes (known as ‘cuckooing’).

We do know that county lines exploitation is widespread, with gangs from big cities including London, Manchester and Liverpool operating throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Gangs are known to target vulnerable children and adults; some of the factors that heighten a person’s vulnerability include:

  • having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example)
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • economic vulnerability
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • connections with other people involved in gangs
  • having a physical or learning disability
  • having mental health or substance misuse issues;
  • being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories)
  • being excluded from mainstream education, in particular attending a Pupil Referral Unit.
A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.

Some potential indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area;
  • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
  • excessive receipt of texts / phone calls and/or having multiple handsets
  • relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups
  • leaving home / care without explanation
  • suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
  • parental concerns
  • carrying weapons
  • significant decline in school results / performance
  • gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.