County lines: child victims of crime

Kamena Dorling, head of policy and public affairs at Coram Children's Legal Centre, examines new measures intended to improve the response to county lines and child criminal exploitation.

The children's commissioner for England has estimated there are nearly 50,000 children in England involved in gang activity, with around 4,000 teenagers in London alone being exploited through "county lines". County lines is a police term used to describe urban gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines or "deal lines". More than 1,000 county line gangs are believed to operate in Britain making an estimated £1.8bn annual profit between them. These gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults, using coercion, intimidation and violence, to move and store drugs and money.

When interviewed recently the commissioner highlighted that "if we go back even a year ago we would have looked for county lines activity in urban areas and in some of the seaside towns. But now what we have got is every police force, including places like Cumbria and Northumberland, reporting county lines activity". One significant change has been that where previously children from the "export" urban areas were sent outside those areas to sell drugs, now more children are recruited locally.

Exploitation of children

Gangs use children because they are cheaper, more easily controlled and less likely to get picked up by the police. They specifically target vulnerable children and those without support networks, including children with special educational needs, mental health problems or disabilities and children experiencing problems at home. They often target looked-after children, particularly those in residential children's homes. Children are groomed, threatened or tricked into trafficking drugs. They might be threatened physically, or their family members might be threatened. Gangs might also offer money, food, alcohol, clothes or improved status in return for the child's co-operation, and then manipulate them so that they feel they have a "debt" to pay off. Some vulnerable individuals are trafficked into remote markets to work while others are falsely imprisoned in their own homes, which have been taken over (cuckooed) using force or coercion.

New guidance

Tackling county lines requires engagement from a wide range of organisations and practitioners and in September revised government guidance for frontline staff who work with children, young people and potentially vulnerable adults was published. The guidance was 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.

A recently launched County Lines Co-ordination Centre, based in Birmingham national police unit has also started working on county lines, aiming to help develop a "multiagency approach" to identify and safeguard vulnerable young people caught up in the drugs trade, confiscate profits from dealers, and understand what drives demand for drugs.

County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons, and it can have a devastating impact on both children and communities. There is currently poor awareness and understanding of child criminal exploitation and victims are often mistakenly viewed as having made a "choice" to engage in criminal behaviour. This can be exacerbated by the child's refusal to recognise themselves as a victim. The fact that children are sent to different locations within the UK to carry out tasks for the gangs mean that this type of exploitation falls within the legal definition of trafficking in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, yet not all these vulnerable children are afforded the protection that victims of trafficking and exploitation should be given. Increased understanding on the part of a range of professionals is a key step to tackling child criminal exploitation.


  • Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual.
  • 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 they believe a person is in immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police.
  • If they are a designated first responder for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), they should also consider referring any young person or adult they suspect of being a potential victim of trafficking or modern slavery to the NRM.

For more information on county lines and child trafficking visit

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Legal Update is produced in association with experts at Coram Children's Legal Centre

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