Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines

Standards and Regulations

The Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011:

Fostering Services: National Minimum Standards

Relevant Guidance

Working Together to Safeguard Children

1. What is Criminal Exploitation?

Child Criminal Exploitation 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. Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation.

Child Criminal Exploitation is broader than just county lines and includes for instance children forced to work on cannabis farms, to commit theft, shoplift or pickpocket, or to threaten other young people.

2. What is County Lines Offending?

County lines is a form of Child Criminal Exploitation. It is a term used to describe the activities of gangs and organised criminal networks who are involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas (within the UK), using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of "deal line". These gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) drugs and money, and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons (County lines: criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, Home Office 2018).

The adults running these networks remain at a distance from the frontline activity of drug dealing, reducing the risk of being caught and instead - they exploit vulnerable children who are at high risk of significant harm transporting and selling drugs, often many miles from home.

Children may be sent to another area of the country to live with a vulnerable adult whose home has been taken over by the gang in exchange for a continued supply of drugs. This is known as 'cuckooing'. These environments are extremely dangerous for children.

County lines activity is a dynamic and lucrative activity, and perpetrators will change their methods of exploitation quickly. For example, a child who is exploited can leave their home or care placement in the morning, sell drugs and return the same day and so avoid being reported missing.

There are high levels of violence and intimidation linked to county lines activity. Children can be very quickly groomed into criminal activity, often before carers or practitioners realise what is happening.

All criminally exploited children are at risk of neglect, emotional harm, sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as substance misuse and extreme forms of violence.

3. Who is at Risk?

Any child or young person may be at risk of criminal exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances, but children who are Looked After or who are excluded from mainstream education are at increased risk of being targeted.

Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:

  • Can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;
  • Can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance (i.e. the receipt by the child of money/drugs or other goods) and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; and
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

Perpetrators are known to target vulnerable children and adults; some of the factors that heighten vulnerability include:

  • Having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse;
  • Being in care;
  • Social isolation or social difficulties;
  • Connections with other people involved in gangs;
  • Having a physical disability or learning disability;
  • Having mental health or substance misuse issues;
  • Being excluded from mainstream education, in particular attending a Pupil Referral Unit. It is important when schools are considering exclusions they also consider the safeguarding risks to the child.

It is thought that 14-17 years is the most common age for children to be exploited but there are reports of children below the age of 11 years being targeted.

Boys are most commonly identified as being criminally exploited, but girls are also used and exploited. It may be that girls are identified by safeguarding children agencies because of concerns other than criminal exploitation while also being criminally exploited.

4. Signs and Indicators

Some of the main warning signs that a child or young person is involved in county lines or being exploited are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • Persistently going missing from their school or the foster home and/or being found out-of-area;
  • Noticeable changes in behaviour (these changes can be very rapid);
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones;
  • Excessive receipt of texts/phone calls and/or having multiple handsets;
  • Relationships with controlling/older individuals or groups;
  • Leaving the home without explanation;
  • Suspicion of physical assault/unexplained injuries;
  • Carrying weapons/drugs;
  • Significant decline in school results/performance;
  • Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks;
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.

5. How to Respond

When concerns about criminal exploitation have been identified, the child's Placement Plan should contain details of the day to day arrangements which have been agreed between you, the Fostering Service and the placing authority to keep the child safe. You and the Fostering Service should actively safeguard and promote the welfare of the child and young person responding to these safeguarding issues as per the placement plan. Consideration also needs to be given to your safety and that of your family.

Supporting Children

  • Building positive relationships with children is vital to preventing and identifying exploitation;
  • You should be supportive and ready to listen to children when and if they need to talk;
  • Look beyond challenging behaviour; if children are aggressive, secretive or going missing ask yourself what might be going on in their lives?
  • When children who are known to be at risk of exploitation go missing, this should be reported promptly to the police, the child's social worker and the local Children's Social Care so they can take action to locate them and return them to safety;
  • Whenever children who have been missing return to the household they should be made welcome and offered care and support by you. Independent Return interviews should be offered in line with the Missing Children Procedure by the local Authority or by another professional;
  • Building strong links with education providers will help to ensure that you and the Fostering Service are notified promptly if a child does not arrive at their education establishment as planned, and protective action taken as a result.

If you and the Fostering Service have any concerns that a child is involved in, or at risk of involvement in, CCE, these concerns should then be shared with the child's allocated social worker, the child's Independent Reviewing Officer and also Children's Social Care/the police. If the child is in immediate danger, always ring 999.

All concerns and other relevant information should be noted in the child's records so that any patterns over time can be identified. The Fostering Service should review your notes and refer on any concerns of patterns emerging.

Sharing Information

Sharing intelligence and information is crucial to preventing criminal exploitation in the local area. It is only by sharing data that agencies can develop an understanding of the prevalence, nature and scale of criminal exploitation and county lines activity.

An early, coordinated response to any child who has been criminally exploited is really important for the child, and other children linked to them - including other children living in the foster home.

6. Working with Children

Children's needs and safety must always come first. This means that you should respond flexibly and continue to 'stay with the child', even when they are unwilling to engage. Relationships between you and foster children which are based on consistency, stability and respectful communication will help in supporting effective interventions with exploited children.

When a child presents with offending, or other concerning behaviour, you need to be curious and compassionate and ask: What is happening in this child's life that is causing them to behave this way? What can we do to help them? The Fostering Service should support you with this as it can be difficult to support these placements.

Children who have been criminally exploited are the victims of crime (although they may not initially see themselves as such).

All professionals working with the child should consider the context of the child's behaviour as well as the impact (for example, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health issues or substance misuse), to help determine an effective response. This is particularly relevant for children exploited through county lines activity.

You and the Fostering Service should consider whether other children in the household may also be at risk (exploited children can be pressured to 'recruit' others). Any concerns should be shared with Children's Social Care and the allocated social workers.

For some children, a move to a different placement may need to be considered. This should be discussed with you, the child, the allocated social worker and the Independent Reviewing Officer to keep everyone safe.

For children who are leaving care, the Personal Adviser and/or Adult Social Care worker should be made aware of the concerns so that they can continue to offer support when the young person moves to other accommodation.

7. Training Requirements and Support

The Fostering Service should provide good quality training to you so you know how to prevent, recognise and support the child or young person with county lines exploitation. You and the Fostering Service must understand the important of effective multi-agency planning with all partners (Children's social care, education and the police) to try and disrupt the abuse as well as ensuring the young person is supported.

Further Information

Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery (GOV.UK) - thematic report from Joint Inspections on the risk of child criminal exploitation.

Children and Young People Trafficked for the Purpose of Criminal Exploitation in Relation to County Lines a Toolkit For Professionals - (The Children's Society in partnership with Victim Support and the National Police Chiefs' Council) - a number of resources that may be useful for professionals when working with children and young people, their families and communities at risk of abuse and exploitation.

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines (GOV.UK) - Guidance for frontline professionals on dealing with county lines, part of the government's approach to ending gang violence and exploitation.