5 Jul 2019

Children as young as seven are being drawn into the dangerous world of ‘county lines’ drug dealing, a new report from The Children’s Society is warning.  

The report, Counting Lives: Responding to Children who are Criminally Exploited, finds 14-17-year-olds are most likely to be exploited by criminal gangs and organised crime groups, but that children of primary school age are increasingly being targeted. One respondent to a survey of police staff said an eight-year-old had been suspected of being groomed to carry drugs and one local practitioner told of a seven-year-old who was receiving support.  

Criminal gangs are taking advantage of younger children but both boys and girls of all ages are at risk. The number of 10-17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs – a significant indicator of county lines trafficking - have gone up by a staggering 49% outside London with the number rising from 338 in 2015/16 to 505 in 2017/18 [i].  

Worryingly, the number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area has nearly doubled from 69 in 2015/2016 to 132 (2017/2018) across 11 out of 41 police forces that responded in England, meaning these children are in very dangerous and traumatic situations sometimes hundreds of miles away from home. 

The Children’s Society says these figures may be the tip of the iceberg in highlighting the scale of the issue, with previous figures suggesting that tens of thousands children are being groomed to carry drugs. (ii)  

Although boys are understood to be most at risk of child criminal exploitation, the report finds nearly one in six children referred to the National Referral Mechanism – the system used to identify victims of modern slavery and human trafficking - as suspected victims of child criminal exploitation, are girls. [iii] 

The report highlights that children affected by family breakdown, living in poverty and being excluded from school may be deliberately targeted by perpetrators. However, it finds that any child can be at risk of exploitation, and that anyone who wants to fit in, to feel less alone or to make money can be at risk. Researchers found that children from more affluent backgrounds and rural areas were vulnerable to exploitation.  

There are increasing concerns for younger children, and the report quotes professionals saying perpetrators 'scout for children perceived as being ‘naughty’ – those who are already pushing societal expectations and boundaries or who are easily convinced – by throwing stones through windows for example’. The grooming process may start with children being persuaded to ‘keep watch’, then escalate with requests to stash drugs, weapons or money and courier drugs.  

The Children’s Society spoke to a deputy head from a primary school who said the risk of younger children at their school being exploited in this way was a “growing concern” and: “There are a couple of children we know of who are ten and younger who have been caught up in this. One boy in Year 6 is often picked up after school by older boys from the area who are about 13 or 14 but we know they are also involved with boys aged about 16 or 17, so you can see there is a web of exploitation where children who are exploited are then made to involve the younger ones.  

“I once saw one of the ten-year-olds taking free fruit from the local supermarket and giving it to the older boys outside. This was a test of loyalty and an exercise in seeing what the boy was prepared to do for them – that’s how it starts. They’re easy targets as they’re seen as sweet and small and because of this they don’t get caught or end up in as much trouble as older children.” 

Criminals are also adapting their tactics to avoid detection, for instance, by using children to carry drugs within their localities and even schools rather than further afield, and by arranging ‘shifts’ - minimising the need for children to go missing for lengthy periods. Practitioners also reported how children terrified of the violence they would face if they missed a ‘shift’ were deliberately getting sent home from school or excluded – for instance, by ‘acting out’ or wearing the wrong uniform.  

The Children’s Society found many police forces and councils are not recording data about children who are exploited and nearly two-thirds of councils do not have a strategy in place for tackling child criminal exploitation. [iv] Some professionals cited a lack of understanding of the National Referral Mechanism, describing it as a ‘form-filling exercise’ rather than a gateway to support.  

Nick Roseveare, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said: “This shocking report reveals how cowardly criminals are stooping to new lows in grooming young people to do their dirty work and in casting their net wider to reel in younger children.  

“Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection and controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear. 

“Yet the response from statutory agencies is too often haphazard and comes too late and a national strategy is needed to help improve responses to child criminal exploitation. This should mean better early help for children and training for professionals, access to an advocate to ensure all children are supported as victims, and a greater focus on disrupting and bringing to justice the perpetrators who are exploiting them.” 

The Children’s Society says independent advocates could help all children referred to the National Referral Mechanism to get the support they need. It also wants to see all children treated as victims rather than criminals, child criminal exploitation to be defined in law and more funding for services to intervene early to help children. 


Media enquiries  

For more information or interviews, please contact The Children’s Society media team on 0207 8414422 or media@childrenssociety.org.uk or Senior Media Officer Rob Devey on 07814 525918.  For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.  

Notes to editor  


[i] Across 17 police forces outside London over three years from FOI data. When the Metropolitan Police figures for the number of arrests of 10-17-year-olds on suspicion of possession with intent to supply Class A drugs are added to the data provided by the 17 forces outside London there is a 14% increase - from 673 in 2015/16 to 770 in 2017/18.    

(ii) The Children’s Commissioner for England warned last year that based on National Crime Agency estimates of the number of county lines there could be 30,000 – 50,000 children being exploited through county lines operations in Britain. 
[iii] National Referral Mechanism data across 12 police forces. 

[iv] Of 141 councils that replied, only 50 said they had a strategy, or were currently putting one in place, to guide their response to child criminal exploitation/county lines. 

Report information  

  • The Children’s Society supports victims of criminal exploitation and helps to improve professional responses through its national Disrupting Exploitation programme in Greater Manchester, Birmingham and London, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.  Other services support children who go missing from home and care – sometimes because they are being criminally exploited.  
  • The Children’s Society report is based Freedom of Information requests sent to 151 councils in England and 43 police forces in England and Wales asking questions about child criminal exploitation in their areas.   
  • Interviews were conducted with seven practitioners from The Children’s Society and 15 professionals from across six councils which had a strategy in place for tackling child criminal exploitation/county lines and were chosen to include a mix of urban, sub-urban and rural areas.   
  • An online police survey was sent to contacts in police forces across England and Wales and regional organised crime units by The Children’s Society and the National County Lines Coordination Centre. We received 202 complete responses to the survey from police staff across 28 forces, the British Transport Police and from four Regional Organised Crime Units.
  • Councils are not currently required to collect data about children at risk of child criminal exploitation and responses to our Freedom of Information requests found only around 4 in 10 councils said they currently did so.
  • Links with violence were explored and data from nine police forces on stop and searches of 10-17-year-olds on suspicion of carrying drugs showed the number of offensive weapons (including knives) and firearms discovered increased by more than a third (34%) from 235 in 2015/16 to 314 in 2017/18. This was despite the number of stop and searches for this reason falling by more than a third (37%) from 18,379 to 13,438 over the same period.  


Quotes from report  

  • “We had one young man, actually, who came from a home, you know, where his mum was absolutely doing everything she ever could – she was ringing the police, she was going missing. She literally did everything. She even locked him in the house because she didn’t want him getting out and he jumped from a second-floor window, I think, and broke his leg. You know? So it isn't- It’s a mix. It’s not just a case of these are all children who are being neglected or deprived; it’s a really broad mix of young people.” (local professional)
  • ‘One of the youth workers once quoted to me that an eight-year-old said he was going out grafting and when he challenged the mother about this she was like, well, we need money’. (local professional)
  • “I've had a young person whose mum was blind and was really quite vulnerable herself and he ended up having to store huge amounts of drugs in the house. So he was definitely targeted over his particular set of...there’s no adult to protect him.  And I think that’s what you see. It’s parents who are, for their own issues, not going to tell someone to leave the kid alone or, you know, or put up any fight; I think they’re looking for people who are going to be easily - easily turned on to doing this work, and no one’s going to say get off my kid, or are you mad?” (local professional)
  • “You work behind the tide every single day. As soon as you think that you’ve understood something or [unclear] a way that they’re operating, it’s changed. And because of the level of violence that’s perpetrated towards our children, the fear and the threat that they live with makes it almost impossible for them to accept (support).” (local professional)  

The Children’s Society  

The Children’s Society is a national charity that works with the most vulnerable children and young people in Britain today. We listen. We support. We act. Because no child should feel alone. To find out more visit: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk