County lines and criminal exploitation – what, why and what does it look like?
Written by the founder of Stop & Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation (SPACE), an organisation shaped on lived insight.
County lines is the name given to a business model used by organised crime groups to transport and sell drugs, using exploited children and young people. They are known as ‘runners’, ‘shotters’ or ‘bics’ (like the pens, they are disposable by the exploiters) and enticed with fairly hefty payments, which they would not earn legitimately elsewhere at a young age.
Vulnerable children and young people with adverse childhood experiences or mental health conditions are particularly susceptible to exploitation (such as poverty, chaotic households, domestic abuse or violence, or single-parent households). However, those from comfortable, dual-parent families are also now increasingly targeted as they bring many advantages.
Children are used in county lines as they are less likely to alert police attention, or be susceptible to stop and search by police, which would disrupt the criminal activity. If they are encountered by police, they are unlikely to have a criminal record (‘clean skins’), and therefore likely to be let off in view of being minors. If they happen to get arrested, they are too low down the hierarchy to be able to identify those at the top of the chain, and threats and coercion by the gang ensure they divulge nothing about their activities to police or professionals. It’s a winning business model for organised crime groups.
Runners are provided with a dedicated burner mobile and number to advertise products and prices via bulk texts to drug addicts, and to carry out the transactions. This is a valued line often fought over as it can potentially make thousands in profit. Children are transported around the UK, using trains, coaches and hire cars, and will be missing from home for days, weeks or months whilst they are stationed in a vulnerable adult’s property, known as a trap-house. This practice is known as cuckooing and usually involves a vulnerable adult addict with mental health issues whose property is commandeered in exchange for drugs.
During this period, children often have no regular access to washing facilities, meals or sleep and experience or witness serious violence or emotional trauma. The runners are regularly rotated; newly-arrived, stocked runners relieve those leaving with cash from sales for the ‘elders’, and their subsequent cut. They arrive home looking dishevelled, gaunt, exhausted and unwashed (and appallingly smelly). After washing, eating and sleeping, they set off once again, supplied for the repeat trip. As missing episodes are now recognised as a key indicator of county lines, triggering police involvement, gangs have responded by trafficking children in local areas closer to home, thereby avoiding missing incidents.
To keep the children under control and exert influence, it is common for gangs to stage muggings and runners’ drugs to be robbed, forcing them into debt-bondage, which requires them to work off the value of the ‘stolen’ goods or cash against a backdrop of violence and threats. With interest continually added to the debt, full repayment becomes impossible and the runners become entrapped in a cycle. Violence is a key theme in county lines if children step out of line or are seen to have broken any codes. They can be horrifically assaulted and weapons such as fire-arms, knives, bats and acid are used to make violent threats. The threat of ‘snitch or stitch’ ensures they say nothing to parents or professionals.
Paradoxically, county lines succeeded as an unknown, invisible and quiet national epidemic, with serious risks to young lives growing exponentially because it was enabled by a lack of awareness amongst police, local authorities, schools, parents and the wider community. It remains a huge challenge for exploited children to be viewed as victims of human trafficking under modern slavery legislation introduced in 2015, having being groomed and manipulated for the specific purpose of criminal exploitation, and transported with internally concealed drugs, locally or nationally.
This legislation remains under-utilised for two main reasons: lack of awareness of its existence or extent of its powers by frontline professionals, and a failure to view exploited children as potential victims of modern slavery. Children are instead seen as having made a lifestyle choice towards criminality.
How to spot early warning signs
There are many signs of a child being involved in county lines. The oft-cited by parents is that of an extreme transformation in personality and also a sense of having jumped from child to adulthood. Detachment from peers and long-standing hobbies and interests, as well as a presence of uncharacteristic behaviours or interests, such as interest in postcodes and boundaries, designer clothes and drill music, and unexplained items such as multiple mobiles, cash, balaclavas, weapons or digital scales.
What is the support process for family members when a concern about county lines involvement is raised?
Given the lack of awareness and exploited children generally being viewed as offenders or perpetrators by professionals, parents are not receiving the support they should in getting their children safeguarded and supported to exit the world they are groomed into.
In 2018, a straw poll in a London local authority with a prevalence of county lines entrenched children indicated two out of three social workers did not know what county lines or the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) was. This meant two out of three children were potentially being failed. The NRM is the UK’s centralised system for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery. Without an NRM referral, a potential victim cannot be identified, safeguarded and appropriately supported.
The process when a concern about county lines is raised, usually by a parent, triggers a multi-agency response, which can parent-blame rather than recognise extra-familial abuse and criminalises rather than safeguards the young person. For this reason many parents report professional-led interventions as irrelevant, ineffective or damaging as their stress and trauma is heightened rather than reduced by them, with the professional maze they are forced to navigate felt as fraught with no beneficial outcomes.
Who are SPACE?
SPACE grew out of lived experience and concerns. SPACE has quickly become a ‘go to’ organisation for parents and professionals. Parents are either encountering SPACE through their own research in a desperate bid to seek help having been failed by professionals, or being referred by professionals involved in their child’s exploitation. For example, parents may need advice and support about:
- Being prosecuted for their children missing school.
- Their child being on the verge of school exclusion and about to be transferred to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), which the parent has raised as a risk.
- Concerns that their child has been arrested and will be criminalised at court.
Parents echo identical concerns around system-wide failures, the impact of grooming on their children, and the nature of the transformation of their children as a result. They cite damaging suggestions from professionals such as ‘why don’t you move your family evening meal to a few hours later’ when advised the child is returning home late from their concerning activities and disrupting the entire family timetable. Comments like these are sadly common. They can undermine parents and play into exploiters’ hands, who use the voice of the child to paint proactive parents as too strict or controlling in order to parent-blame and discredit them.
What SPACE does
- Advocates for parents where possible.
- Appears in court as an expert witness in cases resulting from young people’s involvement in county lines.
- Provides county lines awareness and preventative sessions for professionals and parents.
- Provides signposting support and advice for families directly involved in county lines.
- Identifies professional, quality ex-gang mentors as an intervention to de-groom, stabilise and reintegrate exploited children.
- Campaigns for change in safeguarding policy across current police and local authority processes.
Assistance provided to parents and professionals needing guidance, as well as campaigning work, is self-funded.
Related Research in Practice resources
Lead author Carlene Firmin (University of Bedfordshire) and Research in Practice Director Dez Holmes discuss the Safeguarding and exploitation – complex, contextual and holistic approaches: Strategic Briefing. They reflect on the holistic approach needed to protect children and young people who are, or who are at risk of, being exploited.
At a time of limited resources, and increasing demands, local areas are tasked with addressing multiple forms of exploitation and attending to the causes (rather than solely the consequences) of abuse.
This briefing can be used to inform the development of holistic, complex and contextual safeguarding systems that are equipped to address and prevent exploitation in all its forms.