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What is county lines?

County lines is not a new thing. You may have heard about it on the news or in TV shows like Hollyoaks. But beyond the headlines and scripts, it's a stark reality for many young people. Here we unpack the truth about county lines and how we work to restore the hopes of children being forced to carry drugs across the country. 

What does county lines mean?

County lines is a form of criminal exploitation. It is when criminals befriend children, either online of offline, and then manipulate them into drug dealing. The 'lines' refer to mobile phones that are used to control a young person who is delivering drugs, often to towns outside their home county.

Here are some things you might not know about county lines exploitation:

Age of victims of county lines

young boy freckles looking at camera

Children as young as seven are targeted

Young people aged 14-17 are most likely to be targeted by criminal groups but there are reports of seven year olds being groomed into county lines. 

Primary school children are seen as easy targets because they're less likely to get caught. The grooming might start with them being asked to 'keep watch' but it soon escalates to them being forced to stash weapons, money, or become drug couriers. 


County lines is everywhere

Just because county lines may not get the coverage of other societal issues, it doesn’t mean it’s a small problem. In fact, most police forces across the country have reported county lines activity in their area and they say the violence is getting worse. It’s not just a ‘big city’ problem’. County lines is far reaching, with many smaller towns being affected.

County lines facts


of English police forces have seen county lines activity in their area and the violence is getting worse.

4 in 5

parents are worried about county lines in their local area.

county lines is everywhere

We work with children from London, Birmingham and Greater Manchester who have been trafficked all over the country to other big cities as well as smaller towns. We also work with professionals across various counties.

In Northumberland, our Prevention Team highlighted how easy it was to find the details of children in residential care. Exploiters could easily identify potential victims with a simple online search, putting many children at risk. This is now changing. Public information is being reviewed and more children are being safeguarded. 

young woman and practitioner sitting in garden drinking water smiling

Ending county lines exploitation

We work hard to end this type of abuse so no child has to grow up worried about being groomed. We also work closely with those who have been exploited, helping them build a brighter future. 

Any community can be affected

It affects all communities

It doesn’t matter where you’re from or your social background, children from any community can be groomed into county lines. However, those from poor households, who regularly skip school or have problems at home may be more at risk.

Our Next Generation service in Nottingham worked with three young people who had low attendance at school and were at risk of being exploited. After two years, their attendance is at 100%. They are more focused on their education and less likely to be targeted. 

We also work with those who regularly go missing to escape problems at home. Again, this makes them a target for exploitation. The young people we worked with had 56 missing incidents between them at the start. They now only have two. 

legs of person sitting on swing in playground

Children are not the problem

This may sound obvious but only recently has there been some recognition of the fact that a child caught up in county lines is a victim of exploitation. Often they are treated as criminals, not victims. Fortunately, attitudes are changing. However, gender, age, ethnicity and background can still affect how professionals respond to children.

We work hard so any child affected by county lines gets the support they need to escape a life of exploitation. We train police, social workers and other professionals so they can better respond to children and make them feel safe rather than criminalised.

boy looking worried on train

Spotting the signs of exploitation

By learning the possible signs of exploitation and how to report it, we can keep young people safe, hopeful and focused on their futures. 

County lines is visible

County lines operations are often hard to spot, but the signs are visible. We could all be in a position to stop it.

You might notice a child has multiple mobiles, comes home with unexplained injuries or bruising, suddenly has new trainers they can't afford. These could all be indicators that a young person is in trouble. We encourage everyone to learn the signs of exploitation and how to report it if worried.

Young people can and should live a life free of exploitation. Together we can help them break free from their abusers and face their future with confidence.

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