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Counting Lives

Counting Lives uncovers the sad truth that professionals are struggling to keep up with the scale and context of child criminal exploitation.

Number of pages:

96 pages

Date published:

Responding to children who are exploited

Children across the country are being forced to work in cannabis factories; coerced into moving drugs across the country, made to shoplift, pickpocket or threaten others. They are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection, and controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse. 

This report suggests that professionals are struggling to keep up with the scale of criminal exploitation. The response from statutory agencies is too variable and often comes too late. Children are too easily criminalised, and are not viewed as victims of exploitation. There is a concerning lack of data and reporting about children at risk of criminal exploitation.

There is no easy solution to eradicating child criminal exploitation, but we can and must do more. Through coordinated, concerted efforts across statutory and voluntary sectors, and by working with local communities and families, we can reach vulnerable young people more quickly and begin to disrupt child criminal exploitation.

Here are the key findings:


Grooming and exploitation of children

  • Practitioners and police report increasing awareness of children being exploited through the ‘county lines’ model. This typically describes the distribution of drugs around the country through the use of dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ – though the model is not static.
  • Children can be targeted for exploitation through face to face interactions, or online through social media and other platforms. Criminal groups can hijack popular culture such as music videos to entice young people into criminal exploitation.
county lines cropped

key findings of counting lives report

  • Any child can be at risk of exploitation but some vulnerabilities place children at greater risk. These include growing up in poverty, having learning difficulties, being excluded from school or being a looked after child.
  • Going missing from home or care is an indicator of potential exploitation. Children in care go missing more frequently than other children and are more likely to be found outside of the boundaries of their home local authority. 
  • Older adolescents are more likely to be recorded as having been criminally exploited, but there is evidence that primary school age children – as young as seven – are targeted. There can be a lack of recognition of criminal exploitation affecting younger children and so the opportunity to protect children under the age of 10 can be missed. 
  • Gender, age, ethnicity and background can all affect the way in which professionals do or do not recognise young people as at risk or as victims of criminal exploitation, which can then affect the response a child receives. 
  • Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation.

counting lives facts


increase in number of 10-17 year olds arrested outside London for intent to supply drugs

14 to 17

year olds are most likely to be exploited by criminal groups but children as young as 7 are also targeted

Children coming into contact with statutory services

  • There is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. This can mean that the response to children from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country is inconsistent. 
  • The vast majority of police forces and local authorities across England and Wales were not able to share figures of the number of children affected by criminal exploitation in their area. 
  • There are no consistent ‘markers’ to ‘flag’ children who are at risk of child criminal exploitation across different agencies they come into contact with – including police and social care. These markers could include, for example, children when they go missing from home, are stopped by police, or arrested for drug related offences. 
  • Around 1 in 4 local authorities responded that they collect data, but only around 1 in 5 of all local authorities reported that this data is retrievable to be shared. Police forces were largely not able to provide the number of children arrested for drug related offences who were at risk of child criminal exploitation. 
  • Data on arrests of children aged 10 to 17 for drug related offences provides the best proxy data available on children exploited by criminal groups. Comparison of this shows that more children are arrested for 'possession with intent to supply Class A drugs' than 'possession' alone. The data shows an increase of 13% from 2015/16 to 2017/18 in the number of 10 to 17 year olds arrested for possession with intent to supply Class A drug. (This number rises to 49% if data from London is excluded). 
  • The increase in children arrested for intent to supply is outpacing the rise in children arrested for possession alone. Despite a decrease in the number of stop and search instances overall, there was a 34% increase between 2015/16 and 2017/18 in drugs based stop and search instances where firearms or offensive weapons were found suggesting a link between drug-related crimes and youth violence.

Responses to children who are criminally exploited

  • Children and young people who are exploited by criminal groups experience a variety of responses driven by a lack of consistent national and local safeguarding strategies and procedures. 
  • There is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. This can be part of the explanation of the inconsistent response from different statutory agencies and in different parts of the country. 
  • We asked whether local authorities have a strategy in place to respond to child criminal exploitation and county lines. Of the 141 upper tier authorities that responded to us, almost 2 in 3 do not have a strategy. Fifty authorities said that they do have a strategy or are in the process of developing one. 
  • Where children are being criminally exploited, safeguarding responses are largely reactive. Professionals reported that many children come to attention of statutory agencies when exploitation is already present in their lives and criminal groups are controlling them to deliver drugs. Typically, in these instances professionals report that law enforcement takes precedence over safeguarding responses. 
  • There has been an increase in the number of suspected child victims of child criminal exploitation to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) but very few local authorities collect or can provide this data. Across 17 local authorities more than half of the children referred to the NRM were because of child criminal exploitation (35 out of 61 referrals). 
  • Both police and local authorities’ data on NRM referrals for child criminal exploitation is patchy – possibly because there is no definition of child criminal exploitation in legislation and neither agency is required to collect and report that data.


If you'd like to learn more our methodology, conclusions and recommendations, you can download the full report or read the report summary.