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County Lines: Breaking the Cycle

Insights Report


Authors: Joe Caluori, Head of Research and Policy | Jessica Lumley, Strategy and Insight Manager | Beth Mooney, Senior Analyst | Jess Hull, Analyst

Thursday 8 September 2022


Our latest report into county lines calls for a new approach to ensure children who may be involved in county lines drug dealing are kept safe and away from the criminals exploiting them.

The research, funded by the Hadley Trust, found young people trafficked to deal drugs should be returned to their home area for a 'crisis intervention’ and calls for an end to the practice of ‘exile’ - where children are placed in care a long way from where they live.

We used police records, local intelligence, information from support agencies and interviews with staff to analyse the cases of 13 boys suspected of involvement in county lines gangs in England.

The report finds a number of common features in the boys' lives - such as drug misuse, domestic abuse and periods where they went missing - as well as missed opportunities to prevent them from being drawn into gangs.

The former anti-slavery commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM, who provided a foreword for the report, said:

"The in-depth study of the lives of 13 boys reveals that all had been subject to trauma and damage in their young lives before they were criminally exploited. The dealers are clearly targeting the vulnerable and there appears to be very few protective factors present. A step change in the system response is required.”

Key findings

Early intervention and prevention should address extra-familial risks

Children and young people in need of additional help and support due to traumatic events and serious problems in their childhood are at heightened risk of being criminally exploited. Our research reveals numerous missed opportunities for agencies to respond to ‘red flags’ which indicated young people were at risk of child criminal exploitation (CCE).

Arresting police forces are frequently unable to identify potential CCE when children are involved in county lines

Expertise and knowledge is contained within specialist teams dealing with children who are potential victims of CCE. Yet given the level of county lines activity, these capabilities need to become more embedded across public services. Our 13 case studies demonstrate that there is typically an absence of clear evidence or disclosures from young people. Police officers making the arrest (or arrests) in county lines are often forced to rely on gut-reaction, value judgements or instinct based on contextual factors such as the ages of young people, their attitudes and demeanour.

Children and young people suspected of being victims of exploitation require urgent crisis support in their local area

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM), effectively the diagnostic system for supporting modern slavery victims and those at risk of exploitation, is failing children and young people. It places them in limbo at their time of greatest vulnerability due to unacceptable drift and delay, and decisions which are not based on the best possible information. The localisation pilot run by the Home Office provides a model for new CCE panels, in which senior representatives of relevant agencies from specialist teams jointly protect victims.

Key recommendations

  1. Local authority children’s services and their partner agencies should develop approaches to adolescent risk and extra-familial harm which take into account the practice of CCE. For example, young people who spend longer periods missing from home, are more likely to be involved in gangs or carry out crimes with adults. Young people known to go missing frequently and for long periods ought to be considered at heightened risk

  2. Updated police training on modern slavery, child trafficking and spotting the signs of child criminal exploitation to help officers handle these cases.

  3. Teenagers 100 days shy of their 18th birthday or younger arrested for a drugs offence linked to county lines should be considered a high-risk safeguarding priority, requiring an urgent, crisis response. They should be returned to their home area for intensive support to minimise the risk of re-exploitation. We have used this cut off point in terms of age because it is aligned with the Home Office pilot scheme localising the Single Competent Authority function (SCA) of the NRM.

  4. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) should work more closely with police forces on cases of suspected CCE, offering ‘early advice’ to investigators and building a joint case strategy, as they do with rape and serious sexual offences. This closer working relationship should include the youth justice system.

  5. Local exploitation panels, involving senior specialists from both local authority children’s services and the home police force, should have access to ‘Safeguarding Orders’; civil orders which enable them to control and protect potential CCE victims whilst also deterring and preventing their exploiters from re-establishing contact. This approach could involve creative use of existing orders, or may require fresh legislation

  6. ‘Exile’ – in which looked-after children are moved away from their home area, has failed victims of CCE. The DfE should trial intensive locally-based alternatives for care placements based i.e. models of ‘remand fostering’, or systems-based approaches such as the model currently triallied in multiple local authorities by SHiFT. Given the national shortage of care placements for vulnerable adolescents, this proposal will require upfront investment


County lines are characterised by the grooming, exploitation and trafficking of children and young people to deal illegal drugs, predominantly heroin and crack cocaine in locations which are often far from their home areas. Children and young people involved in county lines are increasingly recognised as potential victims of exploitation and trafficking rather than simply as young drug dealers. Nonetheless, having been recognised as potential victims of what is now described as child criminal exploitation, these children and young people often suffer further serious harm.

When children and young people are recognised as potential victims of CCE, the response from their home areas is generally of poor quality leaving victims vulnerable to re-exploitation. Some of these children and young people may groom and exploit others. Young people in this position are often referred to as ‘alpha victims’ by police officers.

The lack of clear, consistent guidance on how first responders should identify whether or not a young person is a victim of CCE is a significant cause of the ongoing harms and re-exploitation they experience. The lack of robust, effective packages of protection, safeguarding and support for potential victims of CCE in their home areas is also the cause of the harm they suffer. Therefore this report addresses two research questions:

  1. How should it be decided whether or not children and young people involved in county lines be treated as victims of child criminal exploitation?

  2. How should children and young people who are victims of CCE be protected, safeguarded and supported in order to reduce the likelihood of re-exploitation and further harm?

Our approach

This report explores these questions by studying the lives of 13 children and young people, all of whom were involved in county lines gangs that operated ‘dealing bases’ in two police forces which are both regarded as ‘importers’ of county lines. We adopted an innovative approach, accessing data and evidence from both the arresting police force and the home local authority in the case of each young person. This approach has never previously been used to understand children and young people involved in county lines.

The starting point for including each of the 13 children and young people in our sample was a specific ‘identifying incident’. For most, this incident was an arrest for possession with intent to supply (PWITS) Class A drugs. Across the sample, these ‘PWITS’ arrests were variously the result of a specific police operation or a local task force targeting county lines gangs, police officers finding the child or young person at a ‘cuckooed’ address taken over for the purposes of drug dealing (known as a ‘Trap House’ or ‘Bando’) during a routine visit or the culmination of a missing persons enquiry. For three of the young people within our sample, the incident was not a specific arrest, but rather police responding to a disclosure of, or intelligence on, suspected involvement in county lines.

Fig 1. ‘Identifying Incident’ for each young person across the sample

The 13 boys in our sample had all experienced childhood trauma and displayed a range of vulnerabilities before known involvement in county lines, evidenced through contact with statutory services. Over the course of a year, our research undertook an analysis of their pre-existing vulnerabilities, the circumstances of their involvement in county lines and the outcome for them in the criminal justice system.

The authors of this report hope that the insights and recommendations contained within will assist leaders in policing and local government children's services, as well as government ministers and senior civil servants, to improve the national response to county lines and CCE for young people. We believe this report will clarify the role of CCE in county lines and help local police forces and local authority children's services establish robust and effective responses for children in county lines, breaking the cycle of child criminal exploitation.


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