What is county lines?

What is county lines?

Children as young as 7 are being put in danger by criminals who are taking advantage of how innocent and inexperienced these young people are. Any child can be exploited, no matter their background.


Criminal exploitation is also known as 'county lines' and is when gangs and organised crime networks groom and exploit children to sell drugs. Often these children are made to travel across counties, and they use dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ to supply drugs.


Huda's story - a county Lines case study

How many young people are affected by 'county lines'?


No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part, but The Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity. It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation, or 'county lines'.

Tragically the young people exploited through 'county lines' can often be treated as criminals themselves.

We want these vulnerable children to be recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation. We want them to receive the support they need to deal with the trauma they have been through.

READ OUR COUNTING LIVES REPORT

How are children being exploited?


Criminals are deliberately targeting vulnerable children – those who are homeless, experiencing learning difficulties, going through family breakdowns, struggling at school, living in care homes or trapped in poverty

These criminals groom children into trafficking their drugs for them with promises of money, friendship and status. Once they've been drawn in, these children are controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear.

However they become trapped in criminal exploitation, the young people involved feel as if they have no choice but to continue doing what the criminals want.

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What are the signs of criminal exploitation and county lines?


  • 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.

Resources for parents

Watch our video showing how children can be criminally exploited:

Worried about your child being criminally exploited?


If you think a young person you know could be in danger call 999, or 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. We also have a guide for parents who may be concerned about their child.

find out more about our work to tackle EXPLOITATION