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County Lines and Looked After Children

Crest carried out research into the criminal exploitation of looked after children in two police force areas, North Wales and Merseyside. We sought to explain how children in care and young people in semi-independent accommodation are exploited at both ends of the line, helping policymakers and practitioners to safeguard vulnerable children.



Since the National Crime Agency's first county lines threat assessment was published in 2015, the police, local authorities, politicians, charities and academics have had to move at great pace to develop an understanding of county lines. To prevent the exploitation of vulnerable children, practitioners and policymakers need to know how lines operate — the business model, the methods of grooming and exploitation, and the violence which is built into them.

There is much to learn here from the policy and safeguarding response to child sexual exploitation (CSE). After successive scandals, CSE is now tackled through a multi-agency, strategic approach to disruption and safeguarding — one which crosses administrative and organisational borders. So far, child criminal exploitation (CCE) has struggled to follow the same trajectory. Crucially, the difficulty in understanding when to see a child as a victim rather than as an offender, and how to respond, remains in county lines even as it fades for for victims of CSE.

Despite increased media coverage and a heightened political focus, the county lines phenomenon remains a ‘data desert’, with very little published evidence. As a consequence, public debate on county lines generates a lot of heat but very little light.

Crest’s research, funded by the Hadley Trust, seeks to make a contribution to the evidence base by focusing on one significant group of children and young people caught up in county lines: children in care and young people in semi-independent, unregulated accommodation. We believe that by doing so we can make specific recommendations to reduce the exploitation of these vulnerable children and young people and shine a wider light on the evolution of county lines, pointing the way towards keeping all children safer from this model of exploitation.


What did we look at?

Our research focused on two police force areas, North Wales and Merseyside. As 20 of the 22 active lines in North Wales run from Merseyside, we were able to ask whether, and how, looked after children are exploited at both ends of the line. Through deep dives in each area — based on analysis of police data informed by in-depth interviews with experts and practitioners — we aim to answer the following questions:

  • What proportion of criminally exploited children are in residential care or semi-independent, unregulated accommodation?

  • More children are placed in North Wales care homes from Merseyside than from the local area. Is there a relationship between these out-of-area placements and county lines activity?

  • Is the county lines business model shifting towards local recruitment, as some reports suggest?

  • How can local authorities, police, care providers and third sector agencies work together to protect vulnerable young people?

As part of the project, we also wrote a series of articles based on our research. The first of these explained what we know about the impact of COVID-19 on county lines. The second focused on semi-independent accommodation and the exploitation of care leavers. Our third post discussed ‘borderless safeguarding’, where local authorities and police forces work across their borders to protect young people from exploitation, and described the barriers and examples of good practice which we came across.

Project publications

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