Posted: 27 November 2017

County lines: How we’re working to tackle the exploitation of children by gangs

Emily works in our Policy and Research team, which is working with politicians, policy makers and other organisations to raise awareness of the 'county lines' issue and develop solutions.

What are ‘county lines’?

County lines - or ‘going country’ - is when gangs exploit children, some as young as 12, to sell drugs across county boundaries using dedicated mobile phone lines or ‘deal lines’ to supply drugs.

Gangs deliberately target vulnerable children, such as those in care or living in poverty. Most are boys, but some are girls. Gangs groom, deceive or threaten these children and young people into carrying and selling drugs for them.

Each gang has a mobile phone ‘hotline’ that they use to take orders for drugs. They then send the children and young people out to rural and coastal areas to deliver the drugs, collect the cash and bring it back to the gang.

Sadly, these young people are often seen by professionals as having ‘made a choice’ to get involved with gangs, and as a result are criminalised, rather than recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation.

Overlapping issues

Children and young people criminally exploited in this way often also experience child sexual exploitation and abuse, serious violence and psychological trauma.

These young people will often go missing for days at a time, as they are trafficked around the country by gangs. The number of children who go missing and are exploited through ‘county lines’ is not known. Some of them may not even be reported as missing to the police because of fear of gangs. The Children’s Commissioner estimates that around 46,000 children are involved in gang activity.

Growing awareness of ‘county lines’

There is growing evidence of the scale of children being criminally exploited by gangs, or ‘county lines’. With this comes increasing recognition of the impact and harm to children.

This was recently explored in a powerful BBC Three documentary highlighting the experiences of children who have been criminally exploited by gangs to sell drugs. It showed the shocking exploitation of young people and highlighted the lack of prosecution of those who exploit and traffic children to sell drugs.

What are we doing about it?

The Children’s Society, along with Missing People, is providing support to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on young runaways and missing children and adults. In December the APPG is holding an event in parliament to raise awareness of children and young people who go missing because they are exploited by gangs, and to look at examples of practice tackling the ‘county lines’ phenomena. This APPG aims to raise awareness among politicians, police forces and children’s charities across the UK.

Local government officials, the charity and voluntary sector, MPs and the police need to work together to ensure that children and young people get the help they need when they become victims of criminal exploitation, and to prevent this exploitation from happening in the first place.

How you can help

This Christmas, more than 2,000 children will go missing from home. Some of them may also be criminally exploited by gangs. Find out how you can help children this Christmas


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