County lines in Hollyoaks

Soaps can be an escape from reality and life’s challenges, but Hollyoaks has been revealing some uncomfortable truths about the risks facing our children.

We've been advising the Channel 4 soap on a hard-hitting storyline about the criminal exploitation of children to deal drugs, known as ‘county lines. 

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What is county lines?

‘County lines’ is a form of criminal exploitation when gangs and organised crime networks groom children to sell drugs. Often these children are made to travel across counties and use phone lines to supply the drugs.

Hollyoaks wants to get beyond these statistics and look at the impact on children and their families.

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Seeing what we see

We were approached by Lime Pictures, who make Hollyoaks, to advise on their county lines storyline because they wanted to understand more about criminal exploitation.

Our practitioners met scriptwriters and researchers, offering insight into the grooming process, ensuring the story is realistic. We also met young cast members and their parents, and some of the adult cast to advise how they might feel and react on screen as the exploitation takes hold.

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Troubled not troublemakers

There were several things we wanted Hollyoaks to get across. The behaviour of children groomed in this way may change – for example, they may go missing, skip school, or lash out. They may have unexplained money or gifts. Too often, though, warning signs are missed, and children are treated as troublemakers if caught with drugs. They are labelled as criminals rather than victims of exploitation who need help.

We want Hollyoaks to present this problem to the public. We want parents and teachers to understand the impact a lack of awareness can have on children. We want viewers to see the young people as victims of cynical grooming, which escalates to a situation where they're scared to escape and scared to seek help.

how many children are in gangs?

46,000

children in England are estimated to be involved in gang activity

4,000

teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation

The story so far

We have seen new character Jordan beginning to groom his younger cousin Sid and Sid’s girlfriend Juliet, leading to him asking Juliet to sell drugs. We have already seen a stabbing, Jordan’s dark side and Juliet accruing a ‘debt’ she is ordered to repay.

But this is year-long story, meaning there will be space to show the different stages of the grooming process, and the village setting helps demonstrate that any child in any community can be vulnerable.

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Beyond the soaps

You might ask, ‘isn’t it for police, Government and councils, not a soap, to ensure children are protected from exploitation’? It's true, they need to do more. That's why we work to ensure professionals including police officers, social workers and teachers are well equipped to identify children at risk and offer support.

However, parents, friends and teachers may be the best placed to spot grooming, so the more people who know about county lines, the better.

We hope that by tackling this serious subject, Hollyoaks will give viewers - from children and families, to professionals and anyone who encounters young people - a better understanding of the signs and risks of criminal exploitation.