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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Understanding ‘County Lines’ and Its Implications on Youth

Understanding ‘County Lines’ and Its Implications on Youth

County lines refers to the process that criminals use to get drugs into smaller towns or rural areas, typically by exploiting young and vulnerable people. It happens throughout the UK and is a form of child exploitation.

In this article we will look at the way county lines operate and the impact this type of illegal activity can have on young lives, as well as the disproportionate effects it has on marginalised communities. 

What is ‘County Lines’?

County lines is a type of criminal exploitation that typically involves children or young people. It is a highly organised kind of criminal network where adults use sophisticated techniques to befriend, coerce, groom and control youngsters into helping them deal drugs. They may ask them to:

  • Store drugs
  • Carry and move drugs (locally or between counties)
  • Store cash

Criminal gangs use the county lines strategy to maximise profits, distance themselves from illegal activity and minimise the chances of getting caught by the authorities. Young people are put directly in harm’s way and will be used to take the fall if anything goes wrong. 

The ‘county line’ or deal line is the number that is used to give instructions about drug deals. These phones are often ‘burner’ phones that are cheap, disposable and changed regularly. Criminals often prefer old-fashioned phones over smartphones as they do not have the same tracking technology, meaning they are harder to trace. They are also cheaper and easier to replace than modern mobile phones.

All about county lines

The Vulnerability of Youth

Young people are targeted to be used for county lines activity because they are usually more naïve and easier to control than adults. They may also be easier to physically dominate. 

Risk factors associated with gang involvement and youth violence, according to 2019 research headed by the Children’s Commissioner, are identified as:  

  • Family level risks – this includes children living in a household where they experience neglect, housing instability, a parent with substance misuse issues, domestic violence or a member of the household who is a convicted criminal.
  • Personal risks – this includes children with mental health issues, substance misuse problems, a history of going missing from home and a history of (or significant risk of) sexual or criminal exploitation.
  • Schooling – children who are not in the mainstream education system. Children and young people may be additionally at risk if they have problems such as mental health or learning difficulties and have been refused the help that they need.

Additional risk factors may include ‘looked after children’ (children who are in care), persistent truancy, lack of respect for authority, young people who have few or no positive role models and poverty. 

Criminal gangs will usually target children who have one or more vulnerabilities. This is because they are easier to control and manipulate as they already have significant needs that are not being met by their current circumstances. A county lines intervention programme based in London named ‘Rescue and Response’, published data in 2020 that found:

  • 59% of their young people had a social care status
  • 43% of children were not in education
  • 10% had at least one disability

Psychological factors also affect the vulnerability of youths. The brain does not finish developing and maturing until we are in our mid-20s. The part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts to mature. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for skills including:

  • Impulse control
  • Planning
  • Prioritising
  • Decision-making

Without a fully formed prefrontal cortex, teens are more likely to engage in unsafe behaviour, make poor decisions and lack awareness about consequences. The youths who are targeted by criminal gangs have additional problems that will make them even more vulnerable to exploitation. 

Recruitment and Grooming

Grooming refers to an offender targeting a child or young person and building a rapport with them, with the goal of abuse in mind. Sometimes offenders will also build relationships with the young person’s friends and family. The aim of grooming is to gain the trust of a child or youth and to position the offender in a position of power.

  • Victims of grooming do not realise that they are being groomed
  • Children can be groomed by strangers or someone they know
  • The age gap between a child and their groomer is not always significant (sometimes just a few years)
  • Children can be groomed for sexual abuse, slavery, radicalisation and criminal exploitation

Offenders are often good at spotting vulnerable youths who may have already experienced different forms of abuse at home and may be conditioned to believe this kind of behaviour is normal. People who have experienced neglect and abuse during childhood are often more permissive of this type of behaviour as they grow up. Criminals will exploit these vulnerabilities and weaknesses for their own gain, with no thought about the emotional, psychological or physical damage they are causing.

The county lines grooming process usually involves:

  • Identifying a child to exploit
  • Identifying any vulnerabilities that the child has
  • Discovering what the child needs or wants (money, sense of belonging, attention etc.)
  • Using manipulation to make the child believe that the gang is able to meet those needs

Initial contact may take place:

  • In person
  • By phone
  • Using a third party (such as a younger gang member)
  • Via social media

Gangs often use social media to portray a glamourised version of the ‘gangster’ lifestyle using pictures and videos, promising things that might attract a teen or tween, such as money, power, designer clothes, attention from the opposite sex and wild parties. There is also an intersection between drill rap and drill music videos and county lines, with some established performers in the scene, such as Trigga T, sentenced to jail time over their role in county lines operations. 

Often, things start small. A target child may be approached by a gang member and asked to go to the shop to purchase an item for them and told that they can keep the change. This helps to assert:

  • Can the child be trusted? (Do they bring the item back or just run off with the money?)
  • How compliant they are (Do they question the situation?)
  • Whether they follow instructions (How far do they stick to the plan?)

Some people are recruited into gangs by friends or family who are already members. Sometimes another young, exploited youngster is sent to act as a ‘friend’ to the target; this person is more likely to gain the child’s trust quickly as they will appear as a peer

The following venues have been identified as key places where county lines gangs go to recruit vulnerable youngsters: 

  • Outside schools and colleges
  • Special educational needs (SEN) schools
  • Educational facilities for children excluded from mainstream education
  • Foster homes
  • Homeless shelters

Once a child is ingratiated into a county lines gang they will usually be coerced, threatened and intimated into carrying out instructions related to drug trafficking or weapons offences. Very young children may not even have an understanding of what they are doing, just that they are moving packages around and doing as they are told.

Implications on youth

Impact on Young Lives

County lines activity destroys young lives. Young people who get involved with drugs and gangs are at a significant risk of harm, including:

  • Violence and death
  • Spending time in jail
  • Getting a criminal record
  • Addiction issues
  • Mental health problems (including depression and self-harm)
  • Persistent offending
  • Fear, paranoia and isolation
  • Long-term trauma

Young people will be threatened with violence and even death if they leave the gang or alert the authorities to what is going on. These threats often extend to the young person’s family or loved ones. This creates a culture of paranoia and fear and ensures compliance.

Disputes can also occur between gang members or between rival gangs, due to power struggles or arguments about who controls an area. These clashes often end in violence and sometimes murder.

Young people who are recruited by gangs often get stuck in a cycle of drug use and crime and will face severe consequences if they abandon their gang. However, even for the lucky ones who escape, their past may continue to cause them problems, especially if they have been convicted of an offence. A criminal record may be a barrier to finding work or accessing education. Having a criminal record can also restrict where you can travel and the types of jobs you can do.

Child criminal exploitation can also intersect with other types of exploitation, such as sexual exploitation. This can introduce additional consequences that can impact young lives, such as:

  • Sexual violence
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Teen pregnancy

According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), there is a significant correlation between county lines and other types of offending, especially violent and weapons related offences (in particular knife crime).  

Law Enforcement and Intervention

A multi-agency approach is necessary to tackle child exploitation, including the increased use of children and youths to traffic drugs for criminal gangs. 

This includes services such as:

  • Criminal justice system
  • Police
  • Probation service
  • Social care
  • NHS
  • Educators

Public health and safeguarding agencies need to work together to identify ‘at-risk’ populations and find interventions that work. The best way to do this is by recognising problematic behaviour early on and putting strategies in place so that things do not escalate.  

Police use surveillance, intelligence and tip-offs to find and arrest drug dealers and other criminals. However, they need to better understand how these gangs work and make sure their attention is focused on the people at the top who are exploiting young people, rather than on the young people who are often victims. Furthermore, sentences need to be proportionate and appropriate to act as a deterrent against exploitive behaviour. 

Additionally, law enforcement needs to have a plan for what happens to young people after they are removed from county lines gangs. This includes:

  • Strategies for rebuilding their lives
  • Mental health support
  • Any protection they may need (if they have been asked to act as a witness or testify against gang leaders)
  • How to avoid recidivism

Schools and educators have a significant role to play, both in identifying at-risk youngsters and teaching pupils about grooming and exploitation in a relatable and engaging way. If young people know what signs to look for and feel that they have adults around them who have their best interests in mind, they are more likely to speak up. Schools should also take steps to address risk factors such as persistent truancy and poor mental health

Community and Parental Awareness

As a society we need to learn to tackle issues early on rather than dealing with the consequences later. This includes recognising the signs that a young person may be involved in gang activity and taking steps to intervene. 

Some of the signs that a youth is being exploited by a county lines gang may be:

  • Suddenly having large amounts of cash, goods or new clothes with no explanations as to where they came from
  • Being secretive about their whereabouts
  • Travelling to locations they have no connection to or being found far from home (especially in seaside or market towns or rural areas)
  • Unexplained calls and texts, especially at odd hours of the day or night
  • Having multiple phones or SIM cards
  • Carrying weapons (including knives, other sharp implements, bats or firearms)
  • Sudden decline in school performance or attendance
  • Paranoia, short fuse and becoming withdrawn/isolated
  • Having a sudden interest in gang culture including music and fashion
  • Unexplained changes in behaviour or language used
  • New people hanging around, especially older ones

Through research, we know that youths are additionally vulnerable to criminal gangs if they are not having their basic needs met. If you spot any of the above signs in a child or young person that you are close to, the best thing you can do is to open up a dialogue with them and check whether they have any worries or need any help. We know that outcomes are far better for children who have parental involvement and positive role models around them. Children who feel supported, listened to and cared for are less likely to crave attention from negative places, such as criminal gangs. 

Additionally, advocacy and awareness about county lines and its implications on youth include:

  • Educating children and parents about county lines and encouraging them to report any suspicious behaviour that they see
  • Ensuring that all young people have good support networks around them
  • Empowering parents to model positive behaviour and communicate with their children more effectively (this may include engaging with social services and schools, attending therapy or taking parenting classes)
  • Improving access to treatment for mental health and addiction issues
  • Addressing inequalities within communities
  • Making sure strategies are in place so that every child in the UK has access to education
  • Demanding changes to the foster care system to ensure that children who are unable to live at home have adequate support and a safe place to stay
  • Normalising good mental health practice (including reaching out for help) and enforcing boundaries
Understanding county lines


County lines is a form of criminal exploitation that disproportionately affects young, vulnerable youths. Although drugs are at the core of county lines operations, this often intersects with other forms of exploitation and criminal activity including sexual abuse and knife crime. 

To report suspicious activity or a concern about criminal activity you can dial 101 to speak to the police. If a child is seriously injured or in immediate danger, always call 999. 

For advice on grooming and exploitation you can also consult Childline, the NSPCC or Catch22. Catch22 is a dedicated County Lines Support and Rescue service, operated as a not-for-profit organisation. They received £5 million of funding from the UK government in 2022 to help them continue their important work supporting the rehabilitation of victims of county lines exploitation and engaging with services to protect these vulnerable youngsters from future harm.

Through the continued and collaborative efforts of law enforcement, social services, schools and the wider public, more county lines operations can be identified and shut down and more vulnerable youths can be protected from further harm. 

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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