In this article
Research undertaken by the Mayor of London’s office in 2020 estimated that between January 2018 and April 2019, 4,013 young Londoners were involved with County Lines. However, this is not only a London issue. A recent study in an East Anglian town found that drugs were being trafficked into the town by children, young people and adults from Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.
County Lines exist throughout the UK. There are thought to be around 1,000 different County Lines operating across the country, each generating an estimated £800,000 a year in criminal profits, Public Health England report. It is against the law and a form of child abuse.
Data held by the police indicates that knife violence is endemic in County Lines drug dealing. The vast majority (85%) of police forces report the use of knives, and three-quarters (74%) report the use of firearms by County Lines gangs.
The Children’s Commissioner estimated that 27,000 children in England identified as a gang member in 2019 but that number is undoubtedly conservative and has more than likely increased during the COVID pandemic.
More recent research by the National Youth Agency (NYA) found that:
- 60,000 young people identify as a gang member.
- 300,000 young people know someone who is in a gang.
- 500,000 young people are in groups exposed to “risky behaviour” associated with gangs.
- 700,000 young people are persistently absent from education.
- 380,000 young people are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
- Post-COVID-19 gangs preyed on different demographics, such as young women, those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and younger ages.
What are County Lines?
County Lines is the name given to drug dealing where organised criminal groups use mobile phone lines and social media to move and supply drugs, usually from cities into smaller towns and rural areas. Gangs use the phones to receive orders and contact young people to instruct them where to deliver drugs. This may be to a local dealer or drug user, or a dealer or drug user in another county.
County Lines gangs are highly organised criminal networks that use sophisticated, frequently evolving techniques to groom young people and evade capture by the police. In the past decade the County Lines model has evolved with a broader range of products being offered to an expanding client base that is less reliant on addicts, targeting instead adult and adolescent “recreational” drug users.
The UK Government Home Office defines County Lines as:
“A term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.”
What are the dangers of County Lines?
Young people are at risk of dangers if they become caught in County Lines networks. Children and vulnerable people are used to transport drugs, cash or even weapons. It can involve intimidation, blackmail and serious violence. Sometimes gangs form a secure base in the home of a vulnerable person, forcing assistance through violence or exploiting a drug dependency.
More specifically, dangers include:
- Physical injuries such as risk of serious violence and death.
- Emotional and psychological trauma.
- Sexual violence: sexual assault, rape, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation / revenge / punishment, internally inserting drugs.
- Debt bondage: the young person and families being “in debt” to the exploiters, which is used to control the young person.
- Neglect and basic needs not being met.
- Living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments.
- Tiredness and sleep deprivation: the child is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night.
- Exacerbating poor attendance and/or attainment at school / college / university.
County Lines has contributed to putting a large number of drugs and weapons on the streets. Fatal stabbings have increased due to County Lines, contributing to the highest levels since records began. Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned County Lines gangs are “devastating communities across the length and breadth of the UK”.
How to recognise County Lines
Members of the public and those working in the service, retail or transport industries are in a position to spot signs of exploitation and abuse that accompany County Lines.
These signs aren’t obvious and can be a young person or child who is:
- Travelling alone, particularly in school hours, late at night or frequently.
- Looking lost or in unfamiliar surroundings.
- Anxious, frightened, angry or displaying other behaviours that make you worried about them.
- In possession of more than one phone.
- Carrying lots of cash.
- Potentially under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Being instructed or controlled by another individual.
- Being seen in different cars/taxis driven by unknown adults.
- Being accompanied by individuals who are older than them.
- Being seen begging in a public space.
Signs that someone’s property is being “cuckooed” by County Lines gangs include:
- Suspicious items in the property, such as weighing scales, multiple phones, sim cards or drug paraphernalia.
- Unexplained presence of cash, clothes, and other items of value.
- Doors and windows which have been blocked off.
- New faces appearing at the property and the property regularly changing residents.
- Presence of unknown people in the property, who may act as friends of the inhabitant; their accents may indicate that they are not local and may have travelled to traffic drugs.
- More people than normal entering the property, or people arriving and leaving at unusual times.
- Cars arriving at the property for short periods of time.
- Concerns that the inhabitant of the property has not been seen for a while; they may feel too afraid to leave the house or may have been prevented from doing so by the drug gang.
Who is vulnerable to County Lines exploitation?
Any child or young person may be at risk of criminal exploitation through County Lines, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. For some, their homes will be a place of safety and security; for others this will not be the case.
Whatever the child’s home circumstances, the risks from exploitation spread beyond risks to the child. Their families or siblings may also be threatened or be highly vulnerable to violence from the perpetrators of this criminal exploitation.
The national picture on County Lines continues to develop but there are recorded cases of:
- Children as young as 12 years old being exploited or moved by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area, although 15–16 years is the most common age range.
- Both males and females being exploited.
- White British children being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection; however, a person of any ethnicity or nationality may be exploited.
- Class A drug users being targeted so that gangs can take over their homes; this is known as “cuckooing”.
Child criminal exploitation is common in County Lines and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18.
The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology, using social media to make initial contact with children and young people.
To reduce the risk to themselves the dealers will use people they think others will not suspect, so any young person including those on the periphery of drug use or drug taking, or otherwise coming into contact with drugs, is vulnerable. In some areas there are local “hubs” recruiting local children to distribute drugs.
Peer grooming is common in County Lines and can take place in schools, on social media and in contexts where children meet. Social media is used in multiple ways – to glamorise and normalise drug selling, gang involvement and criminality, and it is also used to sell and advertise the drugs.
Leaders or dealers can enter into relationships with vulnerable young females, which can also lead to sexual exploitation or domestic violence. Young people can have drugs or money stolen and become indebted, needing to continue to supply to pay the money back.
“Cuckooing” is a term that is often used in connection with County Lines. When a gang moves into an area, they need somewhere to base themselves. They will often take over a vulnerable person’s home, for example, through exploiting mental or physical health issues or through promising free drugs. The takeover can be to such an extent that the person is either kicked out of their own home or can only access specific parts of their home.
Warning signs and risk factors
As with other forms of exploitation and abuse, there are things that we can look out for which might indicate that someone is involved in County Lines.
- Being frequently missing from home, placement or school and may often be found out of the home area or may often go missing without explanation.
- Suddenly having significant amounts of money, new phones or new clothing which is out of character.
- Carrying a number of mobile phones, receiving constant calls/text messages.
- Being linked to groups of young people / young adults who are older or controlling.
- Having unexplained injuries or starting to self-harm.
- Having poor attendance/achievement at school or showing an unexpected decline in their academic work.
- Being isolated from their normal peer group and/or becoming secretive about their actions.
- Becoming withdrawn or alternatively having unexplained outbursts which are out of character, for example increasingly stressed/anxious/angry.
- Having unexplained bus or train tickets.
- Using unusual terms such as “going country”, “trapping”, “trap line”.
- Not wanting to go to specific areas without explanation.
- Having keys / hotel cards for unknown places.
- An increase in anti-social behaviour.
Children and young people with increased vulnerability and risk to County Lines include those:
- Who have previous experience of being abused.
- Who have lived or are currently living in unstable home environments, for example where there is domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, parental mental ill health or criminal activity.
- Who are socially isolated.
- Who are in families where there are significant money issues, homelessness or where the family are frequently having to change accommodation.
- Who are already involved in, or on the edge of, gangs – this may be through direct involvement or involvement of siblings.
- Who are looked after, particularly those who are in residential care settings and those already placed outside of their home area.
- Who are classed as Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).
- Who are excluded from mainstream education and attending alternative provisions such as pupil referral units.
It is also worth bearing in mind the increased risks that these gangs pose over the school holidays when children have more free time.
Responding to County Lines
Any practitioner working with a child who they believe may be at risk of County Lines exploitation should follow their local safeguarding procedures and share this information as advised. If you believe a person is in immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police.
Law enforcement collectively has been stepping up its response, working to identify and take effective action in areas of the country with the most significant problems. Tackling County Lines, and the supply gangs responsible for high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse of vulnerable adults and children, is a priority for UK law enforcement.
The cross-country nature of County Lines means that any appropriate response will involve the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of government departments, local government agencies, and voluntary and community sector organisations. The Ministry of Justice’s guidance (which is detailed at the end of this article) is not statutory but provides best practice and clear referral pathways for frontline practitioners to follow nationally. The guidance emphasises that the government approach to youth justice involves promoting the safeguarding of children as the primary objective and seeing the child first and the offender second.
Preventing County Lines
Police say new tactics have enabled them to drive the expansion of County Lines drug dealing into reverse and have vowed to eradicate it from the country’s worst-affected areas. In many cases, the arrest of the line controller terminates the line and the risk associated with that line.
However, prevention is often more effective, and this can be helped by being aware of how gangs recruit their members and some of the stages and tactics of exploitation, in order to plan early interventions, particularly in schools and colleges who are often best placed to spot the signs.
Target – Targeting occurs when a young person has been identified as a potential recruit. The victims are “befriended” to help establish a rapport and often refer to experiencing a sense of belonging, acceptance, and power over other people.
Experience – The strategy for this stage is to create an appealing lifestyle to reel victims in. The relationships are cultivated through gift-giving, offering protection, fostering a sense of belonging, and in some cases “gifting” weapons.
Hooked – When young people are “hooked” they are made to feel like a member of the gang or group. They might be given responsibilities that may involve criminal exploitation and recruitment of others to join the gang.
Trapped – This stage is arguably the more precarious of recruitment strategies for County Lines as victims feel dependent on the gang for survival. This can include money offering, drug dependency, blackmail, or even physical violence such as stabbing, raping and torture.
Prevention can be helped by schools and colleges raising awareness with children and young people of County Lines and the associated dangers. They can do this by giving children and young people easy access to advice and support and letting them know that there is someone they can talk to about any issues or concerns that they may have, ideally before they get caught up in the spiral of exploitation. They can also engage parents and carers so that they are aware of the signs to look out for and know who they can approach for help and support if they recognise any of the warning signs.
Guidance and legislation around County Lines
The wide range of criminal activity associated with County Lines means that police and prosecutors, on a case-by-case basis, can consider different legislation which fully reflects the criminal conduct and gives courts sufficient sentencing powers, not just prison sentences, but ancillary orders and asset seizure to disrupt future criminal enterprises.
- The Modern Slavery Act 2015 – This contains the offence of holding someone in slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour. This offence includes forms of exploitation relevant to human trafficking and allows consideration of the victim’s personal circumstances, such as any mental or physical illness which may make the person more vulnerable than other persons. Consent is irrelevant.
- The Policing and Crime Act 2009 – This contains provisions for injunctions to prevent gang-related violence and gang-related drug dealing activity to be sought against an individual.
- The Serious Crime Act 2015 – This contains provisions that amend the statutory definition of what comprises a “gang”, as defined in section 34(5) of Part IV of the Policing and Crime Act 2009.
- The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – This contains the principal offences relating to the misuse of controlled drugs and covers a range of offences including those dealing with possession, supply and production.
- The Customs and Excise Act 1979 concerns the importation (and exportation) of a controlled drug.
- The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988 may be appropriate in connection with “County Lines” activity, as they provide for offences involving offensive weapons and items which have a blade or are sharply pointed.
- The Firearms Act 1968 provides for a range of offences concerning firearms, shotguns and specific types of weapons, their component parts and ammunition.
- County Lines activity often involves offences against the person. Offences to be considered include common assault, those offences set out in the Offences against the Person Act 1861, and attempted murder.
- The Sexual Offences Act 2003 – This contains principal offences relating to Violence against Women and Girls. Females who have entered into relationships with gang members are often controlled, coerced and subject to domestic abuse. Females may also be sexually assaulted or threatened with sexual assault and prostituted for sexual favours in payment for drugs. Females may also be used against their will to initiate younger males into gangs through sexual activity.
- The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a range of powers to ensure that local agencies have the tools they need to respond to different forms of anti-social behaviour. For example, the police and local authority may use the closure power to close premises quickly which are being used, or likely to be used, to commit nuisance or disorder or crime, and the prosecution may apply for a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) after the offender has been convicted of a criminal offence.
- The Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced the Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders (DDTRO) Regulations. These enable the police and National Crime Agency to apply directly to the civil courts for a court order to compel mobile network operators to close down mobile phone lines and/or handsets used in drug dealing. The DDTRO powers were introduced to enable the closure of anonymous phone lines known to be used for dealing drugs.
- The Home Office / Ministry for Justice issued County Lines guidance primarily aimed at frontline staff who work with children, young people and potentially vulnerable adults. This guidance is aimed at professionals working in education, health, housing, benefits, law enforcement (police) and related partner organisations, as well as carers and parents.
What support is available?
If you have concerns about a child or young person involved in gangs or County Lines, it is so important to get help as soon as you can.
If a child or young person is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.
As a parent or carer, you can make a referral for your child to Children’s Care Services; search your local council’s website for their contact information.
St Giles Trust – Their new County Lines support service offers a lifeline across England and Wales 020 7708 8000
For the following areas:
- Blackburn & Darwen.
- Central Liverpool.
- North Yorkshire.
You can contact your local Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace) Parent Liaison Officer 0113 240 3040.
You can report a crime anonymously at Fearless.
Safe4me lists details of national and local services offering specialist support, advice and resources for children and young people, families, and professionals on a broad range of needs, concerns and topics.
Further information on safeguarding can be found in the Department for Education’s Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance.