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The realities of county lines and child exploitation

Children as young as ten are being exploited and drawn into County Lines. It happens, and it’s happening here within our communities.

County lines refers to the phone line used by organised criminal groups to deal drugs. These groups seek out often vulnerable or socially isolated children under the premise of becoming their friend, or even a romantic partner, before engaging them in criminal activities such as selling and delivering drugs. This is known as ‘grooming’, where offenders will gain the trust and form a connection with a vulnerable person, offering them a sense of status and protection. Often many young people do not recognise they are being exploited.

Initial contact is often carried out on the streets or in places which young people frequent, including near schools. Social media is also used to entice young people.

They lure young people in through ‘grooming’, whether it be through giving them cash, designer clothes or trainers, or just a sense of ‘status’ and ‘belonging’, but once part of the network, young people are in a highly vulnerable situation.

Detective Inspector, Angela Burtonwood, from our dedicated County Lines team said:

“Coercion, deception, intimidation, threats of violence to the child and their families and fear – these are just some of the realities for a child or vulnerable person being exploited by criminals involved in drug lines. It’s devastating and can have such a traumatic impact on a child’s life. These criminals are clever, they manipulate and coerce people into carrying out their dirty work, which can put them in some incredibly dangerous situations.”

Involvement in county lines is not glamorous. It exposes young people to crime, drug use, violence, and in some cases sexual abuse, that can have a lasting and traumatic impact on their future. Some children have even disclosed that they have been told by those exploiting them that everything will be okay, because their criminal record will be erased when they reach 18 – but by then, the damage is already done.

Young people exposed to the world of county lines often suffer emotional, physical, and psychological trauma. They are often kept in houses known as ‘trap houses’ for weeks at a time, where they are used to cut up and deal Class A drugs. These houses often belong to other vulnerable people who may be suffering from mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol dependencies. Their houses are taken over by drug dealers in what’s known as ‘cuckooing’ and often see the child or young person living in unsuitable conditions, without access to food or showers. They can be exposed to regular and normalised intravenous heroin use, violence and trauma and being in this environment can significantly increase the chances of the young person using drugs themselves.

Whilst they may be engaging in criminal activity and drug use, these children are victims.

DI Angela Burtonwood continued:

“It’s so important that we see these young children for what they are – which is victims of crime, not criminals. The last thing we want to do is criminalise them, we want to help them and give them the support and safeguarding they need to get back on track. Too often the narrative is that it doesn’t happen here, or wouldn’t happen to certain families, when the truth is it does and can happen anywhere, to any child.

The people we are after are the criminals who exploit them and force them into crime, these people are highly dangerous and violent and their crimes will not be tolerated.”

We are dedicated to bringing those responsible for violence and exploitation to justice and to safeguarding those who are caught up in the misery of county lines, or drug-use through no fault of their own. Our dedicated County Lines team works with teams across the force, including the drugs market intelligence team, neighbourhood police, as well as other police forces, to identify those who are causing harm and prosecute them.

Arrested suspect led into a police car

We work closely with local schools and partner agencies to not only identify children at risk of exploitation and put diversion and intervention tactics in place, but to reach those who are already involved and help them to access treatment and support.

Would you know the signs of child exploitation?

Ask yourself, is a young person:

  • Frequently returning home late, staying out all night or going missing for a few days or weeks at a time
  • Travelling alone, particularly in school hours or late at night
  • Looking lost or in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Potentially under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Taking regular phone calls
  • Missing school or college with no explanation
  • In possession of large amounts of cash or new belongings such as designer clothes and trainers
  • Anxious, frightened, or angry
  • In possession of more than one phone
  • Often accompanied by individuals who are older than them

Child exploitation is not obvious, but it can happen anywhere. The child sitting near you on the bus or train, the young person you serve at work, the child in your school, the child in your home.

If you are concerned about a child or young person that may be being exploited, you can report to us by calling 101 or 999 if you think they are in immediate danger. If you wish to report anonymously, you can do so through CrimeStoppers, either online or by calling 0800 555 111.

If you’re a victim who has been coerced and exploited into acts of crime, or if you’re concerned for a friend, you can also report anonymously via Fearless or you can call the police on 101.