Posted: 04 January 2018

'County lines' - how children and young people are forced to sell drugs

What is ‘county lines’?

County lines refers to when gangs and organised crime networks exploit children to sell drugs, often across counties, and use dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ to supply drugs.

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

We know that urban gangs deliberately target vulnerable children, such as those in care or living in poverty. Many are boys, but some are girls. Gangs groom, deceive or threaten children and young people into carrying and selling drugs for them. These young people are being trafficked.

Gangs may initially offer something in return for the young person’s involvement – such as money, food, drugs, alcohol, jewellery or expensive clothes, status or belonging, but this doesn’t always last and a debt can be set which means the young person ‘owes’ the perpetrators.

Victims, not criminals

Sadly, young people who are criminally exploited are often seen by professionals as having ‘made a choice’ to get involved with gangs, and are seen as criminals. This can make a young person feel responsible for the exploitation they’ve experienced. However, we think it is important that children are recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation, and that they need support to deal with the trauma they have been through.

How are young people affected by county lines?

Children and young people criminally exploited in this way are also often victims of sexual exploitation, violence, neglect and modern slavery. Young people will often go missing for days at a time, as they are trafficked around the country by the perpetrators.

We see how county lines activity and the related exploitation has a devastating impact on children and young people. They are affected in many ways, including: physical harm, child sexual exploitation, rape, neglect or psychological trauma.

We don’t know the exact number of children who go missing and are exploited through ‘county lines’. The Children’s Commissioner estimates around 46,000 children are involved in gang activity.


What to do if you think a child is in danger

If you think a child could be in immediate danger dial 999.

If you have non-urgent information to share with the police, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

If you are concerned about a child’s welfare, contact your local social care department.

If a child wants to talk to someone in confidence they can call ChildLine on 0800 1111.

What are the signs of criminal exploitation and county lines?

These are some warning signs that a young person could be being criminally exploited:

  • Returning home late, staying out all night or going missing 
  • Being found in areas away from home
  • Increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
  • Being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
  • Unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
  • Unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewellery
  • Increasingly disruptive or aggressive behaviour 
  • Using sexual, drug-related or violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Coming home with injuries or looking particularly dishevelled 
  • Having hotel cards or keys to unknown places.

What are we doing to tackle county lines?

Our STRIDE service in London supports boys criminally exploited in relation to county lines. In Manchester, our Safer Streets service supports young people who are missing and are often also victims of criminal exploitation.

Our child sexual exploitation services also support girls and young women who have been criminally exploited, as these issues often overlap.

We listen to young people, we don’t judge. We help them to understand what’s happened to them and explore plans for the future. We work with the police and children’s social services to ensure the young person gets the support they need.

We have also developed a toolkit for professionals working with young people affected by criminal exploitation and offer training and awareness raising across England and Wales.

To tackle the issue as a whole, we are working with politicians, local government, the police and other charities. There are no simple answers, so it’s important to work together to develop solutions.

For more information on county lines, watch the BBC Three mini-series.

Watch more

By Carly Adams - Programme staff

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

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Our work to tackle child sexual exploitation

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