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Safeguarding children involved in County Lines drug dealing
Very variable response with many vulnerable young people being exploited by gangs and criminalised by the justice system.

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Scoping report from St Giles Trust

The St Giles Trust just (1 October 2018, don’t be confused by the May 2018 date on the report cover) published a scoping report into County Lines which finds that although awareness is growing “full understanding and identification of the phenomenon and the aspect of exploitation of vulnerable children seems very variable across and within different geographical areas and organisations.”

What is County Lines?

According to the Home Office, County Lines is 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.

A proactive business model

The St Giles report describes the gangs owning and managing county lines as adopting a highly responsive and proactive business model. Gangs tend to react quickly to actions taken by police and other agencies to disrupt county lines. The report notes a recent significant change:

Traditionally most of the children taking drugs to county areas have been recruited in the export area eg: London. More recently, local ‘hubs’ seem to be being established, recruiting more local children to distribute drugs that are supplied either by a runner from the export area, or, increasingly by an experienced child from the local area being sent on a day return trip for supply. This appears to have advantages for the line owner – supply can be achieved in a day which avoids the potential trigger of children going missing overnight or longer, and local children are likely to be a cheaper workforce, more easily intimidated and coerced, and less likely to be noticed in a local area.

The report is careful to note that there are still many children from London and other areas who are being trafficked across the country.

Which children are targeted?

Children who get involved in county lines appear to come from a variety of backgrounds including those with multiple interventions from public services because of chaotic and risky home circumstances (see this recent Guardian article on how children excluded from school and attending Pupil Referral Units are often targeted) , looked after children and those from well-ordered and materially comfortable families. 

Involvement in county lines, whilst more frequent amongst children who are experiencing deprivation or being looked after, is certainly not restricted to these groups. One reason for the diversity of backgrounds is that county line owners/managers will recruit children that blend in with the drug market that the line is intended to exploit. These markets can vary from relative affluence such as working professionals and universities to the poverty of addicts living on the street or in poor housing. Recruiting children who know, and can fit in with the
relevant market environment helps lines to ‘keep under the radar’ of the police and communities.

The response

The St Giles report notes number of challenges facing statutory sector organisations:

  • Identifying county lines activity and the children involved in it
  • Understanding and identifying child vulnerability and criminal exploitation
  • Identifying the urgent and serious risks to the safety and life of the child, including identifying when a child meets thresholds for interventions
  • Delivering effective support for children, with limited resources, a lack of specialist knowledge and services, and children who are very difficult to engage
The Home Office flowchart below shows the complexity of inter-agency co-operation required.


Balancing vulnerability and criminality

Child criminal exploitation is a fairly new concept and the report found that the notion of children who are involved in criminal activity being victims (as well as perpetrators) sat uncomfortably with some organisational cultures and individuals.

Where the vulnerability of children/young people is accepted, the national referral mechanism (NRM) and Modern Slavery Act (MSA) are starting to be used. However, this is new legislation and was not written specifically to encompass the child trafficking and criminal exploitation taking place through county lines resulting in frequent confusion.


The report (which is accompanied by an evaluation of a St Giles pilot project tackling county lines) sets out a number of recommendations including:

  • Continue to pilot and evaluate Missing People’s SafeCall service, with a view to it being able to provide a national specialist service primarily for parents/carers, but including children and young people where they make contact with the service. Test out how the phone service can provide a supported referral to on the ground specialist services (once they are established).
  • Explore how light touch peer to peer organisational exchange/mentoring could be established to give opportunities to learn in more detail about each other’s approaches and developments (statutory and voluntary sector).
  • Introduce training for professionals (statutory and voluntary sector), supported by specialists with lived experience and/or cultural competence.
  • Review the current arrangements and lack of regulation for accommodation for those aged 16 and over, including introducing some form of regulation and inspection.
  • Introduce specialist support for children referred to the NRM to enable them to be helped to exit safely and effectively the criminal exploitation in which they have been involved.
  • Review the current position regarding making out of area placements of children, including the arrangements for ensuring that all relevant agencies are made aware of these placements, especially where there are significant risk factors including county lines, CSE etc.
  • Identify how academies and PRUs can address the issue of exclusions, very long term/permanent exclusion, and lack of engagement of children in the education provided, including through the Ofsted inspection framework.

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