Child exploitation

County Lines

Child Exploitation refers to the exploitation of any child or young person under the age of 18.

Exploitation can happen to any child regardless of their age, gender, background, socio-economic status, religion or culture. It occurs across all communities in the UK and whilst some children have additional vulnerabilities, any child can be targeted. 

Perpetrators can be male or female, from any or all backgrounds, communities and religions.  

There is no ‘typical perpetrator’ model and no ‘typical victim’ model.

Child Exploitation can take many forms, such as sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, radicalisation, modern slavery and child trafficking. Often children are subjected to more than one form of exploitation at a time. 

Child Criminal Exploitation - County Lines

County Lines is a form of criminal exploitation that is illegal and classed as child abuse.

The 2018 Home Office Serious Crime Strategy states that “the definition of a County Line 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 is a method of exploitation where criminals commonly exploit children under the age of 18 to carry out the visible drug dealing whilst allowing perpetrators to remain at a distance in relative safety. The exploited children do the majority of the work and carry most of the risk. This means the perpetrators can maximise their profits and the individual children involved are viewed as expendable and easily replaceable if they do get apprehended by the police. Threats and intimidation commonly prevent the children from being able to tell the police or other agencies what is happening to them, as the danger to them and their family from being a ‘grass’ or a ‘snitch’ is very real.

County lines often intersects with other serious crimes such as sexual exploitation, violence, money laundering, human trafficking and gun and knife crime. It is possible for one child to be exploited in several ways at the same time.

Children can be exploited in a variety of ways for example a child may be sent as a courier, concealing drugs or money in their clothing or body to an area far from their home. The child may then return to their home city or they may be forced to stay in the far away area in a property known as a ‘trap house’ to continue selling drugs.

Trap houses act as a base for packaging drugs to sell on the streets, to store drugs and to sell drugs directly from the property. The trap house where the child stays may be in a poor state of repair with nowhere for the child to sleep or wash and with no food or heating. It may also be inhabited by other people who pose a risk to the child, this could be the adults who legitimately own or rent the property but who are also exploited by the perpetrators who promise them free drugs or to pay utility bills in return for using their property.  The adults frequently have vulnerabilities of their own e.g. mental or physical health issues, substance misuse issues or learning disabilities. When the perpetrators invade somebody’s home in this way to set up a base for their drug economy this is known as ‘cuckooing’ or a ‘home invasion’.

Children don’t have to be trafficked far away or kept in a trap house to be exploited via county lines, if a child is moved across their home city, to neighbouring counties or even 200 yards down the street to courier drugs or money on behalf of the perpetrator, that child is still being exploited.

County lines can involve elements of rival gangs who are in conflict with each other, for example a dispute as to which gang controls a particular area or the drug supply to that area. This can lead to serious injury or death for young people travelling in or through areas that are claimed by a rival gang. Drug debt (sometimes called drug bondage) can be used to force a child to engage in county lines activity.

County lines often involves a significant physical, emotional and sexual risk of abuse to children due to the violence the perpetrator exerts to maintain control over them.

County Lines is a fluid and flexible method of exploitation that has the capacity to change according to circumstance for example perpetrators maintain multiple trap houses to use and open new ones as fast as authorities are able to close others down. During the Covid-19 pandemic where children are not able to move freely around the country/cities there are reports of children being dressed as critical workers to evade detection and instead of selling drugs on the streets children are being forced to sell those same drugs from unsafe properties instead. County lines has not disappeared during the pandemic, but its method of operating has adapted to circumstance.

It remains unknown how many county lines are currently operating due to this fluidity, as lines can open, close and change at very short notice. However evidence so far suggests that children as young as 7 years old are being exploited into county lines and perpetrators commonly target children who appear to have additional vulnerabilities such as having learning difficulties, experiencing the breakdown of family, struggling at school, living in care homes/being a Looked After Child or experiencing deprivation or poverty at home. However, no child is immune to being targeted by perpetrators.

What are the Indicators of County Lines?

This is not an exhaustive list, but some common indicators of county lines are: 

  • Going missing from home or school
  • Suddenly having lots of money, new possessions, new clothes or trainers that they cannot account for
  • Receiving more calls/texts than usual
  • Being very protective of their mobile phone or having multiple phones or SIM cards
  • Using new language, words or hand signs you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Changing their appearance, e.g. dressing in a particular way or style, or use of particular colours
  • Changes in behaviour e.g. being scared, aggressive, distant or angry
  • Talking about an individual or group who have a lot of influence over them
  • Hanging around with individuals or groups that are older than them and breaking ties with old friends
  • Dropping out of positive activities and hobbies
  • Unexplained physical injuries and/or refusal to seek or accept medical treatment
  • Travelling alone to places far from home or being found by services out of area
  • Unexplained bus or train tickets
  • Carrying drugs, large amounts of money or weapons
  • Self-harming and substance misuse issues 

As professionals it’s important to remember that exploitation is a form of child abuse and the boundaries may at first seem unclear when intervening with and supporting exploited children. The young people may be viewed at first glance as perpetrators or criminals but it’s vital to recognize that they are usually victims as well. The language we use when discussing children at risk of child exploitation is extremely important as this language may be victim blaming or imply that the child is responsible for the crimes that have happened to them. Such language and terminology may find its way into formal case notes, statutory meetings or a courtroom where the perpetrator is on trial.

Please review the NPCC and Victim Support guide to appropriate language to reflect on your terminology.

How to respond

If you think a child is in immediate danger always call the emergency services on 999.

To discuss a non-emergency matter with the Police call 101.

If you are concerned that a child or young person is being harmed or is at risk of harm, but there is no immediate danger, or you need advice or information, please call Coventry Children's Services at the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) on 024 7678 8555.

Out of office hours please call the Emergency Duty Team on 024 7683 2222.

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