What is county lines?

County line gangs use children and young people to prepare, store, deliver and sell drugs around the country or within their local communities by using coercion, intimidation, debt bondage (creating a debt the child has to pay back), violence and/or grooming.

Gangs use children because they are cheaper, more easily controlled and less likely to get picked up by the police. Children exploited by county lines can be sent to different towns/county within the United Kingdom to carry out tasks for the gangs.

National Referral Mechanism (NRM)

When children are forced into travelling somewhere for the purpose of exploitation, in legal terms, this movement is classified as trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. This means that for the parents, agencies and police working to put a safeguarding plan in place, the child is eligible for additional protective measures. When a child has been moved for the purposes of exploitation, a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) should be completed for the child. This referral will give the police and supporting agencies greater powers to disrupt their abusers and more access to support for the victims.


Where gangs have targeted a particular area, they typically use a local property, generally belonging to a vulnerable person, as a base for their activities. This is known as cuckooing.

Whilst we see many children moved to locations outside of their own town as part of the county lines process, it’s important to remember that children can be being exploited within their own town by county lines gangs and never go missing from home. This is a way of the gangs remaining unseen, using children who do not ‘flag’ up on systems.

Targeting of vulnerable children

There has been a lot of discussion around vulnerability of children who are targeted for the purposes of exploitation. In Ivison Trust’s experiences all children we see are vulnerable. There are many reasons targeting children is an attractive process for offenders as listed above, but essentially it is the offenders targeting and involvement/interest in the child that increases or creates a vulnerability.
Offenders are very good at using any issue a child may share with them, or that may be visibly obvious to the offender to create a connection and fill a need., such as bullying, safety within the local area, or low self-esteem.

Male and female children are exploited by gangs. However there is still very limited research and understanding about girls in gangs. The lack of information and understanding impacts how visible females are and how they are assessed in risk and harm assessments. It is thought that 15-16 years is the most common age for children to be exploited by gangs but there are reports of children below the age of 11 years being used. The OCC Anne Longford commissioned a scoping exercise to determine how many young people where currently involved in gangs. The figure was extremely high and this extrapolated figure could go some way to suggest that the young people who were spoken to identified themselves as being in a gang, when in fact the ‘gang’ didn’t see them as gang members. They were simply an exploited workforce. Children are very disposable by the gangs but often they won’t see this, and remain loyal. Often from the grooming they have experienced, the ‘codes’ they have been initiated into or from fear.

Gangs are increasingly looking to recruit ‘clean skins’ i.e. children with no previous criminal record who are unlikely to be stopped by the police.

Grooming and coercion

Gangs often use threats, coercion and violence to force children to do what they want. Punishments are common for children involved within county lines. This is usually for mistakes deemed to have been made. The gang will respond with often physical or financial punishments for the child. The punishments can be extremely violent such as stabbings, and acid attacks. The financial punishments often mean any mistakes made that lose money for the gang have to be repaid with an extortionate amount of money added on top as interest. Often this will just keep getting added to. Gangs may also trick children into getting into their debt, for example, by giving them a mobile phone or drugs only to later demand repayment for the cost. The child will then be in ‘debt bondage’ to the gang as described above.

Peer grooming is common and can take place in schools, social media and contexts where children meet. Social media is used in multiple ways, to glamorise/normalise drug selling/gang involvement and criminality, but also used to sell and advertise the drugs.

Victim not suspect

There is currently still a lack of awareness and understanding of CCE and it is often the case that victims are mistakenly viewed as having made a ‘choice’ to engage in criminal behaviour.
Due to the grooming process children involved in criminal exploitation can often not see themselves as victim’s which can further complicate the issue of supporting the child to be recognised as a victim of criminal exploitation. Children who are being exploited by gangs for their criminal purposes are victims and they should be safeguarded, not criminalised. This is in UK law, under The Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings. It states victims shouldn’t be criminalised for crimes committed whilst they were being trafficked.

Some key facts to remember with regards to criminal exploitation include:

Who is targeted?
Both males and females can be exploited. 14 to 17 are the most often targeted age group, however children as young as often 10 are targeted too.

Where are children targeted?
Children and young people are targeted and groomed for criminal exploitation across all areas of the UK. One current trend is young people being targeted in cities to sell in less drug saturated new locations and children from those areas also being targeted to sell drugs.

Children and young people can be vulnerable to targeting at:

  • Pupil referral units,
  • Alternative education provisions,
  • Special education needs provisions,
  • Care homes/placements

The Children’s commissioner has begun a campaign calling for an end to unregulated children’s homes. The correlation between children living in these often unsupervised environments and child criminal exploitation has been seen by many parents supported at Ivison Trust.

Concealing and carrying drugs
Children and young people can be shown how, or made, to internally insert and carry drugs in their rectum or vagina. Children and young people can often store wrapped drugs in their cheeks, which can then be more easily swallowed if approached by police. Children and young people are often given targets to sell drugs to, given modes of transport such as bikes or train tickets, weapons to protect themselves, and a phone with drug users’ contacts on it.

Trap houses
The children and young people will be sent to ‘trap’ houses, or ‘bandos’ where they will be made to sell drugs for anything from a few days to six weeks or more.  These established bases can often involve exploitation of vulnerable adults. Children and young people may be at risk of harm from the vulnerable adults who may also be being exploited by the gangs, eg using their homes as a trap house. Those adults often have their own needs such as learning disabilities, substance misuse or mental health issues, and there have been instances of harm to children and young people exploited by those individuals.

Children and young people can receive money, and other items but equally they can receive non-tangible returns such as the feelings of protection, belonging and even love

Phone lines
The phone lines can be worth thousands of pounds. There is monetary value in the selling of drugs and weapons, and also sexual exploitation related to this type of trafficking. This creates a place where exploiters can have financial gain through the victimhood of children and vulnerable adults.

Debt bondage
The gangs have been known to set up children and young people in staged robberies, meaning that the child or young person believes they are in debt to the exploiters. This is known as ‘debt bondage’, where the child or young person believes they have to work for free to pay off the debt. This can also apply if the child or young person is genuinely robbed, or if they are arrested and have drugs, money or the phone confiscated by police.