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Case Study: Successful Interventions in Child Criminal Exploitation

Criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse where children and young people are manipulated and coerced into being involved in criminal activity. County Lines is the police term for urban gangs who exploit young people into moving drugs, usually from a large city to other places, often suburban areas, and market and coastal towns. They use dedicated mobile phone lines in order to do this. 

According to NSPCC children as young as 12 years old have been exploited into carrying drugs for gangs. This can involve children being trafficked away from their home area, staying in accommodation and selling and manufacturing drugs. Child trafficking is the illegal movement of children, usually for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation.  

Human trafficking for criminal exploitation is a type of trafficking in which the victim is exploited by being forced or coerced to engage in illegal activity. 

A child or young person might be targeted and recruited into a gang because they may have certain vulnerabilities that mean they are more at risk and likely to be targeted, for example being in foster care, children who live in houses where abuse, neglect or addiction is an issue, children who are outside of mainstream education, or children who have a learning need. They might join because they don’t feel that they have another option or because they feel like they need protection. 

Children and young people may become involved in gangs for many reasons, including:

  • Peer pressure – children, especially adolescents, may feel pressured to join a gang to gain acceptance or protection from their peers.
  • Family influence – growing up in an environment where family members are involved in criminal activities or gangs can normalise this way of life and make it seem like a viable option for the child.
  • Economic factors – poverty and lack of opportunities can drive children to join gangs as a means of financial support or to escape their socio-economic circumstances.
  • Lack of positive role models – without positive adult role models, children may turn to gangs for guidance and a sense of belonging.
  • Thrill-seeking behaviour – some children may be drawn to the excitement and adrenaline rush associated with criminal activities.
  • Protection – in areas where violence is prevalent, children may join gangs for protection against rival gangs or other community threats.
  • Emotional vulnerability – children who feel neglected, lonely or misunderstood may seek belonging and validation in gangs.
  • Cultural and social influences – in some communities, gang involvement may be glorified or seen as a rite of passage, influencing children to join.
  • Access to drugs or alcohol – gangs involved in drug trafficking or other illegal activities, may attract children seeking access to substances.
  • Lack of education – children who struggle academically or feel disconnected from the education system may see joining a gang as an alternative path.
Child criminal exploitation

Victims of CCE often feel that there is no escape and that they are trapped in their situation, or they may not realise that they are a victim yet. There is also a strong link between children who are exploited and go missing from home. 

Some methods through which child criminal exploitation can occur include:

  • Gangs – street gangs often recruit children and young people to engage in criminal activities such as drug trafficking, robbery and violence. Gang members may target vulnerable children and use coercion or promises of protection and belonging to draw them into criminal activities.
  • County lines – this involves exploiting children to transport and distribute drugs from urban to rural areas, often using dedicated phone lines (county lines) for communication and coordination. Children may be lured into this by promises of money, status or threats of violence.
  • Drug trafficking – children can be exploited to traffic drugs, either within the country or across borders. They may be coerced into carrying drugs or hiding them in luggage, often unaware of the risks and consequences involved.
  • Sexual exploitation – children can be exploited sexually, and this can be linked with criminal activities. Traffickers may manipulate and coerce children into these activities.
  • Fraud and theft – children can be coerced or manipulated into participating in various forms of fraud, such as identity theft, credit card fraud or shoplifting. They may be used to steal goods or money for the benefit of others.
  • Online exploitation – children are increasingly vulnerable to online grooming for criminal purposes. This can include grooming for sexual exploitation, but also for involvement in cybercrime such as hacking, phishing or spreading malware.
  • Forced labour – children may be exploited for forced labour, including in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction or domestic work. This can sometimes involve criminal elements, such as human trafficking or illegal employment practices.
  • Blackmail and extortion – children may be coerced into criminal activities through blackmail or extortion, where perpetrators threaten to expose embarrassing or compromising information unless the child complies with their demands, which may include committing crimes.

Some signs to look out for if you think a child may be being exploited include:

  • Changes in behaviour – sudden or significant changes in behaviour, such as becoming secretive, withdrawn or unusually aggressive, can be indicators of involvement in criminal activities.
  • Unexplained wealth or possessions – if a child suddenly has expensive items or money without a plausible explanation, it could be a sign of involvement in criminal activities like drug dealing or theft.
  • Truancy or poor school performance – regularly skipping school or a sudden decline in academic performance could be a sign that a child is involved in criminal activities or being exploited.
  • Associating with older people – if a child is frequently seen with significantly older people, this could be a sign of exploitation, especially if seen with those known to be involved in criminal activities.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse – substance abuse can be both a cause and a consequence of criminal exploitation.
  • Unexplained injuries – any unexplained injuries or signs of physical abuse should raise concern, as they could indicate involvement in violent criminal activities or of being coerced by others.
  • Changes in appearance or hygiene – neglecting personal hygiene or sudden changes in appearance, could be indicative of involvement in criminal groups.
  • Secretive behaviour online – spending excessive time online or being secretive about online activities.
  • Involvement in illegal activities – evidence of involvement in illegal activities such as theft, vandalism or drug-related incidents.
  • Isolation from family and friends – children who are being exploited may be isolated from their usual social circles or family members, as exploiters often try to control their victims’ relationships.
  • Displaying fear or anxiety – if a child appears fearful, anxious or hesitant to talk about certain topics or people, it could be a sign that they are being threatened or coerced.
  • Receiving unusual messages or gifts – unusual messages, gifts or packages that a child receives, could be coming from adults seeking to exploit them.
  • Being missing from home – exploitation has strong links to being missing from home.

It is important to note that these signs do not automatically mean that a child is being exploited.

Case Study 1

Jane aged 14 lived with her mother in London. Her mother had requested additional support from children’s services. Jane was not in regular education and had incidents of going missing from home. Jane and her mother raised significant concerns for their safety following a series of threatening incidents. 

Their home had become a target by adults of concern who had been exploiting Jane into drug-related activity. Jane came to the attention of the youth justice team and received a court order relating to selling illegal drugs and possession of an offensive weapon. The community policing team identified connections with Jane and adults of concern in the community. Jane was also linked with other young people who were known to be at risk of child criminal exploitation, specifically travelling across the country via train due to county lines activity. 

Jane was referred to the child exploitation team where there was a multi-agency response. This involved:

  • Direct work with Jane and her mother to gain insight into their experiences and concerns. This helped to formulate a plan.
  • Links were made to the housing department, to help assess options and bring the issue to their attention should relocation be required.
  • Communication with the school to raise awareness of the risks for Jane in the community and issues of travelling to school.
  • Transport was arranged to and from school and key staff were kept aware of her movements.
  • Partnership work with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to gain expertise on how best to support Jane and begin to make her feel safe.
  • The team worked with the council and community policing to increase the physical safety in and around the home. This included a panic alarm and street CCTV turned to face the property.
  • The community police team increased their presence around the home.
  • Jane’s details were shared with the British Transport Police as a measure to prevent exploitation for county lines activity.
  • Jane’s mother was given contact numbers to report any missing from home episodes and any suspicious activity around the home.
  • Ongoing direct work with Jane and her mother from the exploitation team involved supporting them to understand the risks and signs associated with being missing from home and exploitation.
  • Regular multi-agency meetings to review and continue to monitor the risks to Jane. This included reviews of the safety plan, police intelligence and peer mapping.
Successful interventions in child criminal exploitation

Case Study 2

David was a 14-year-old boy living in a disadvantaged area of Birmingham. He had a history of neglect and abuse and he was often left unsupervised and vulnerable to outside influences.

David’s vulnerability made him an easy target for local gangs involved in criminal activities. David began spending time with older peers who were involved in petty crime. Initially, he was attracted by promises of friendship, protection and material rewards. However, David found himself coerced into selling drugs and carrying out other illegal activities on behalf of the gang. He was regularly going missing from home. David felt trapped and unable to escape due to threats of violence against him and his family. He became isolated from positive influences and struggled to see how to get out of his situation. 

Recognising the signs of David’s involvement in criminal exploitation, concerned teachers, social workers and police officers collaborated to intervene. A multi-agency approach was employed, involving children’s services, youth support organisations, and specialised units dealing with child exploitation. Together, they conducted thorough assessments of David’s situation, including his home environment and the influence of the gang on his life.

A key aspect of the intervention was about building trust with David and providing him with emotional support. Youth workers and mentors engaged with him in a non-judgemental manner, helping him to understand that he was a victim of exploitation rather than a willing participant in criminal activity.

With the support of dedicated professionals and the community, David gradually disengaged from the gang and began to rebuild his life. He received counselling to address the trauma he had experienced and to develop coping strategies for dealing with the challenges he faced.

David was also provided with educational and vocational opportunities to help him build a positive future. David became an advocate for other vulnerable young people in his community, sharing his story to raise awareness of the dangers of criminal exploitation. 

Lessons Learned

Supporting a child who is being criminally exploited requires immediate action to ensure their safety, as well as long-term strategies to address the underlying issues contributing to their vulnerability. It requires a multi-agency approach from the beginning. Some things to consider include:

  • Ensure their safety – the first priority is to ensure the immediate safety of the child.
  • Contact local police or children’s services to report the exploitation – provide as much information as possible about the situation, including any individuals involved and any evidence you may have.
  • Professionals should recognise the signs of exploitation – professionals should be trained to identify signs of criminal exploitation.
  • Build trust – establishing a trusting relationship with the child is crucial. They may be hesitant to disclose their situation due to fear, shame or loyalty to their exploiter. A child may not understand that they are being exploited initially. Professionals should create a safe and supportive environment where the child feels comfortable sharing their experiences.
  • Listen and validate – listen actively to the child’s concerns and experiences without judgement. Validating their feelings and experiences can help them feel understood and supported.
  • Assess safety – assess the immediate safety of the child. If they are in immediate danger, take necessary steps to ensure their safety.
  • Provide support services – connect the child and their family with appropriate support services, such as counselling, mental health services, legal aid, housing assistance and substance abuse treatment if necessary. These services can address the underlying issues contributing to the child’s vulnerability to exploitation.
  • Report the exploitation to the police to initiate an investigation – there should be a joint intervention between the police and social care.
  • Empower the child – help the child understand their rights and options. Empower them to make informed decisions about their future and support them in accessing resources and services that can help them break free from exploitation.
  • Follow up and monitor – continuously monitor the child’s situation and provide ongoing support as needed. Follow-up meetings and check-ins can help ensure that the child remains safe and receives the necessary support to recover from their exploitation.
  • Educate and raise awareness – raise awareness about the issue of child exploitation within the community and among professionals working with children. Education and awareness initiatives can help prevent future cases of exploitation and ensure that children receive the support they need.
  • Multi-disciplinary teams – a multi-disciplinary approach ensures that the child’s needs are addressed comprehensively and effectively. Multi-disciplinary teams are crucial in addressing child exploitation for several reasons including having specialised expertise, a comprehensive perspective, a victim-centred approach, improved coordination and enhanced accountability. The teams should include social workers, specialist police officers, health workers, youth offending services and any other relevant child advocacy services or specialist teams. The child’s school should also be involved throughout the intervention process.

Impact and Statistics

Criminal exploitation of children and young people has a devastating impact on victims, families and local communities. The government has published guidance for frontline staff in England to enable practitioners to recognise the signs of criminal exploitation and respond appropriately so that victims and potential victims get the protection and support they need.

In the year ending March 2021, police recorded a 27% increase in the number of modern slavery offences involving a child; 64% of these were for forced or compulsory labour. In the Crime Survey for England and Wales 27,000 children in England were identified as a member of a street gang. Based upon research in 2019, it has been estimated that 30 to 50,000 children are being criminally exploited by county lines gangs; nine in ten of those identified as being exploited through county lines are boys, although girls could be being missed through any gender biases in policing.

Addressing child criminal exploitation through successful interventions not only benefits individual children but also has far-reaching positive impacts on communities and society as a whole, leading to safer, healthier and more resilient communities. Here are some of the broader impacts:

  • Reduction in crime rates – effective interventions can lead to a decrease in crime rates associated with child criminal exploitation by addressing the root causes and providing support to vulnerable children.
  • Prevention of future criminal behaviour – interventions that target CCE not only address the immediate issue but also aim to prevent future criminal behaviour. By providing support, education and rehabilitation services, at-risk children are less likely to continue down the path of criminality, thereby reducing the burden on the criminal justice system in the long term.
  • Improved community safety – communities affected by CCE often experience heightened levels of fear and insecurity. Successful interventions can restore a sense of safety and trust within the community.
  • Health and well-being – child criminal exploitation can have severe physical and mental health implications for victims. Interventions that provide access to healthcare, counselling and support services can improve the overall well-being of affected children, contributing to healthier communities.
  • Economic benefits – CCE can have economic costs for society, including healthcare expenses, lost productivity and criminal justice expenditures. Effective interventions can reduce these costs in the long term.
  • Breaking the cycle of violence and exploitation – many children involved in criminal exploitation come from backgrounds of abuse, neglect or poverty. Successful interventions can help break this cycle by providing children with alternative pathways and opportunities for a better future.
  • Enhanced trust in authorities – successful interventions demonstrate the effectiveness of governmental and non-governmental agencies in addressing complex social issues. This can lead to increased trust in authorities.
Successful interventions in criminal exploitations


Effective interventions in child criminal exploitation are crucial for safeguarding vulnerable young people and disrupting the cycle of exploitation and violence. Through prevention, early intervention and robust support services, underlying factors driving exploitation can be addressed while also providing comprehensive assistance to those affected.

To report suspicions about child trafficking or CCE you can call 101 for non-emergency, or 999 in emergency situations. 

If you have any concerns relating to a child, you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. 

If you are a child who is in need of support, you can call Childline on 0800 1111.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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