Guidance to tackle county lines cases

Kamena Dorling

Kamena Dorling, group head of policy and public affairs at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, examines the rise in county lines cases and new guidance for practitioners on how to improve safeguarding.

County lines networks use children to deal drugs. Picture: Syda Productions/Adobe Stock
County lines networks use children to deal drugs. Picture: Syda Productions/Adobe Stock

As data recently published by the Department for Education showed a 27 per cent rise in referrals for children affected by gangs compared with last year, and a 20 per cent increase for those affected by trafficking, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has published practice guidance for youth offending teams (YOTs) and frontline practitioners on a problem that combines both issues: county lines. The UK government defines “county lines” as “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”.

Although Class A drug supply underpins county lines offending, exploitation is a key element of it, with county lines offenders recruiting, transporting and exploiting children and vulnerable adults to carry out activity including preparing, moving, storing and dealing illegal drugs. Victims are often children, typically males aged 15 to 17 but including children as young as 11, who are groomed with money, gifts or through sexual and violent relationships.

In May this year three drug dealers became the first gang members to be jailed under the Modern Slavery Act for using children to traffic drugs in county lines operations. They had recruited six children to traffic crack cocaine and heroin to Portsmouth in 2013 and 2014. The victims – three girls and three boys – were used to carry drugs to Portsmouth and money back to London, and sometimes be forced to stash drug packages in their body cavities. They had to ask permission to use the proceeds from selling drugs for buying food, and were not allowed to return to London until all the drugs were sold.

Ministry of Justice guidance

The cross-cutting nature of county lines means that any appropriate response will involve the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of government departments, local government agencies, and voluntary and community sector organisations. While Home Office guidance on county lines has already been published, the key focus of the MoJ’s guidance, which is not statutory but provides best practice, is to provide clear referral pathways for frontline practitioners to follow nationally and use as a template. Its aim is to increase national consistency, better co-ordinate the response to county lines and improve safeguarding of children who are being exploited through county lines. The guidance emphasises that the government approach to youth justice involves promoting the safeguarding of children as the primary objective and seeing the child first and the offender second. It makes clear that youth offending services and police forces should be aware there is a potential for traditional risk assessments to underestimate the risk of harm posed to a child involved in county lines, as well as to their safety and wellbeing.

The guidance outlines some potential indicators of county lines exploitation within the secure youth estate, and the adult custodial estate, for prison and probation service professionals to be mindful of. For example, female and child visitors are increasingly targeted by organised drug dealing networks to transport drugs into the secure youth estate and the adult estate, and in the secure youth estate, some children are targeted by other children, which is often orchestrated by organised drug dealing networks and adult perpetrators within the community.

Multi-agency working

Given that the success of the county lines model for drug dealing is due, in part, to dealers exploiting the lack of intelligence and joined-up working across geographical and administrative boundaries in the UK, the guidance makes clear the importance of a collaborative, multi-agency approach and the need for information sharing by key stakeholders, including local authority children’s social services, youth offending services, police forces, housing, health, schools, missing/return home interviews, care/fostering and other frontline practitioners.


If they suspect exploitation through county lines, HMPPS officials should:

  • Contact the local authority children’s services and youth services and follow local safeguarding procedure, as advised;
  • Contact the local police force, and follow local police procedure, as advised;
  • Where appropriate, contact the Regional Organised Crime Unit;
  • Where appropriate, follow the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) process

Where it is found that the child committed an offence as a direct consequence of their situation, prosecutors should follow the Crown Prosecution Service guidance on the approach to prosecuting county lines offences, including a focus on the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which can be found at and, where appropriate, consider whether there is clear evidence of the statutory defence.

The MoJ guidance includes best practice referral pathways recommended for police forces and for youth offending teams, local authority children’s services, education, housing and other frontline practitioners to follow when they believe a child may be a victim of county lines exploitation.

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