Posted: 29 January 2019

Our work with child victims of criminal exploitation

We recently spoke to one of our project workers, Faye*, who specialises in working with young people who are victims of criminal exploitation, also known as ‘county lines’.

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*Names have been changed to protect those involved.

What is life like for children who are being victimised by 'county lines'?

A lot of these children are targeted by criminal gangs because they haven’t got a family, or security, or love. Likely to be trapped in poverty, they are picked off the street, having nowhere else to go, and are made to feel part of a family. They are groomed with gifts and affection, but soon the abuse starts and the child is trapped in a cycle of horror. We’ve encountered children who are deeply affected psychologically from physical abuse like torture, and varying forms of sexual abuse.

However, it’s not just the physical and emotional effects which are awful. Victims are transported around the country, taken far from home, to live in drug dens known as 'trap houses' where there can be horrific conditions. It’ll be dirty, sometimes there won't be a mattress, sometimes there will be, it just might be covered in blood, urine and vomit. There's no food and there will be drugs lying everywhere.

Children in danger

Victims are groomed into a relationship of power and control by their abusers. The ‘elders’ within the criminal gang have complete control over them. They may be forced to hold guns or knives as well as large quantities of drugs. If they are robbed, or lose any of these items, they may be subject to reprisals such as torture, kidnapping and severe physical and sexual abuse.

As part of the grooming process, the gangs will make children mistrust social workers and the police. ‘Snitching’ is made out to be the worst thing a child can do. Victims will be scared of telling on someone because of the repercussions for them or their families back home.

The role of practitioners

My role is to build a trusting relationship with child victims of criminal exploitation. Having been exploited by so many people, it can be hard for vulnerable young people to start to trust you and open up about the abuse they have experienced. Project workers like me build this trust through constant and persistent support for that young person, so that they don’t feel like anyone is giving up on them.

That might be by meeting up with that child for a coffee and a chat, or dropping them a text or a call to keep in touch, so that they know they are not alone. With our support, victims become more resilient, we help them to feel a sense of self-worth so that they are empowered to break free from their abusers.

As well as this, we also help educate victims about the grooming process in criminal exploitation, helping them understand how the media can glamorise this environment.

However, one of my most important duties beyond this is to safeguard and protect these young people. I work with victims to create a safety plan which helps prevent the abuse from escalating. This involves helping them recognise what dangerous situations look like and advising them what to do if this becomes a reality. Making that young person aware of where to go for safety, who they can call, who they can trust and how to spot potential perpetrators.

Sometimes, in order to protect a child, we may also need to get other agencies involved.

Working with police and social services

At The Children's Society, we are pioneering in the area of criminal exploitation. We are in a great position to not only help a young person’s emotional and mental well-being, but also to influence and inform different services to work with victims.

In some tragic instances a victim may come to me having been threatened with kidnapping, serious violence, and even death threats. In order to keep that child safe, I work with other agencies, such as the police and scial services. to share information that will ensure the child is moved to a place of safety.

We work with social services to ensure these vulnerable young people have support at home. Sometimes their environment at home can be very unsafe, so it may be necessary to move children out of their area.

We also ensure that social workers have filled out a ‘National Referral Mechanism’ form. This document declares that a child is a victim of trafficking, therefore if they are picked up by police with possession of drugs, they are less likely to be criminalised.

As we are experts in the field, we are educating other professionals to better support victims through this ordeal and help disrupt the cycles of abuse.

You can read more about ‘county lines’ to understand and recognise what the signs are that a child may be a victim of criminal exploitation. 


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

Posted: 27 November 2017


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'County lines' - Drugs: how children and young people are forced to sell them

Posted: 4 January 2018


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Criminal exploitation and 'county lines' resources

Posted: 26 June 2018