County Lines: In conversation with national experts

Jess Hull, Policy and Communications Analyst



PROJECT: County Lines: Breaking the Cycle

In July, Crest hosted a roundtable discussion to mark the launch of our latest research on county lines. The research seeks to understand two of the most urgent questions which arose in our first county lines project:

  1. How do the police, children’s social care and the wider criminal justice system reach a judgement on whether young people arrested or referred in police operations against county lines are victims, willing participants or groomers?

  2. What are the outcomes over time for these young people?

Chaired by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM, the event brought together national leaders and experts to explore our research questions in detail.


The experience and knowledge of attendees will help the Crest team to develop lines of enquiry to explore in our fieldwork in Suffolk and Lancashire.


The intersection between victimisation and offending

The roundtable began with discussion on how the overlap between victimisation and offending is understood in the context of county lines; debate centred around where to draw the line on victim status, if a line should be drawn at all, and the implications of drawing this distinction for the support on offer.


Participants reflected on the need for greater consistency around decision-making and evidential criteria, with different approaches to the identification of exploitation in use across police forces and partner agencies. There was discussion around the value and limitations of distinguishing exploiters from victims based on their age. One perspective was that under-18s involved in county lines should always avoid prosecution for offences as they themselves have previously been exploited, even if they now exploit others. In taking this approach, it was suggested authorities could utilise existing child protection legislation to provide an offer of support, with the added benefit of consistency across force areas and local authorities.


It was countered, however, that automatically designating under 18s as victims may have unintended dangerous consequences - making children more attractive targets for gangs due to a perception of immunity from prosecution. The complexity - or ‘murkiness’ - of exploitation was also emphasised. It was suggested that from a policing perspective, authorities should adopt a more rigorous case-by-case approach, exercising professional curiosity to establish whether someone committing an offence might also be a victim of exploitation. Several participants highlighted ways in which this judgement should not be based solely on age, but should also account for additional and intersecting factors such as neuro-diversity, social care status, mental health vulnerabilities, race and gender, as well as aggravating factors such as weapon carrying or use of significant violence.


It was further noted that the assumption under-18s are victims tends to cast over-18s as perpetrators by extension. This assumption, it was observed, reinforces the gap in support for the 18-25 cohort who remain vulnerable to exploitation but are not covered by child protection legislation.


There was broad recognition that police forces have an improved understanding of the overlap between victimisation and offending in the context of county lines, especially across VRU networks. However, the importance of timely safeguarding checks in custody suites and the value of multi-agency working, especially when the young person under investigation is out of area, were emphasised. There was a consensus view that trauma-informed practice is a useful tool to help frontline officers and professionals identify and respond to exploitation. Concerns were expressed that there is a growth in new recruits with little experience or knowledge of these issues dealing with county lines cases in localities as a result of the uplift in police numbers.


The challenges of borderless safeguarding

Whilst examples of good practice exist, several participants referenced a breakdown in communication and cooperation around both the investigative and safeguarding elements of cross-border working between police forces and local authorities. It was noted that complexities around which area takes responsibility for a young person can lead to investigations being dropped, whilst differing structures of safeguarding partnerships across boundaries can make check-ins logistically difficult.


Several voices identified inconsistencies in police forces’ approach to exploitation as a challenge to effective safeguarding across borders. Impacted by levels of training and senior leadership, it was noted that some forces follow trauma-informed practice when dealing with a young person at risk of exploitation, while others still routinely pursue prosecution. It was emphasised that the issue is compounded by siloed database systems; there is no child criminal exploitation flag used nationally, meaning that vulnerability is not always flagged to police if a young person is arrested out of area - not uncommon in the case of county lines. In such instances, it was suggested that a holistic multi-agency approach, informed by those closest to the young person, would result in the best outcome. However, there was recognition that effective cross-border collaboration is not the norm, with little time available in the system day to day for such debate, due to competing priorities. It was suggested that encouraging local police teams to speak to their counterparts offered the best opportunity to share learning across areas.


The local NRM pilot was welcomed in terms of the potential to improve the quality and timeliness of decision making for young people through multi-agency input. However, weaknesses of the current mechanism were explored, with a suggestion that areas lack confidence and understanding, and criticism that the impact of the NRM is often felt too late in the criminal justice process and does not always have as significant an impact on domestically trafficked young people as anticipated. Once again, the importance of multi-agency collaboration during the referral process was emphasised.


The opportunities and threats to supporting young people over time

Several drew attention to a lack of guidance from Working Together on extra-familial risk, noting the current child protection system is not sufficiently dynamic to meet the needs of children who experience complex risk in the community. It was suggested that thought be given to the range of partners involved in community interventions, with input needed beyond child protection, from local youth workers and/or the local gangs unit. The difficulties in enforcing action against extra-familial sources of harm or exploitation, compared to cases of intra-familial abuse, were also highlighted. Contextual safeguarding was recommended as a valuable approach to protect against community harms. Similarly, flexible techniques which move beyond traditional assessment models and give agency to young people over interventions, were commended. The importance of including the voluntary sector in the response was also stated, and the value of lived experience and cultural competence emphasised. Several noted that secure, multi-year funding for such work is vital to retain experienced staff.


The county lines flag introduced by NCLCC was identified as a positive prompt to encourage professional curiosity, as it does not distinguish between exploitation and offending at the point of application. It was felt, however, that the national remit of the county lines flag, compared to the local application of child criminal exploitation flags, reinforced the former as a political priority and reflected a lack of wider focus on criminal exploitation of children within drug dealing and gangs in county bases. It was suggested that gangs actively take advantage of this narrow focus. The emerging franchise and relay county lines models appear to actively ‘game’ this distinction, blurring the line between remotely operated county lines and locally operated drug markets.


The risk posed by the use of new technologies to groom young people and growing online exploitation through social media was also raised, especially during the pandemic. Some felt that exploitation taking place online, or over the phone, was not given as much weight or focus in policing as more traditional methods of exploitation, leaving gaps around where such intelligence is sent. It was noted that these gaps present a clear vulnerability in the response of statutory agencies to county lines which OCGs and gangs will continue to exploit.



Five key questions to take forward:


  • How can the police and local authority partners reach a more consistent, national approach to identifying and classifying the exploitation of young people? Which tools and sources of information are available to officers exercising professional curiosity and what information do they lack?

  • How does an NRM referral change the level of support for young people already known to the safeguarding system and children’s social care services?

  • To what extent does the transition from children’s to adult services impact on vulnerabilities that enable exploitation?

  • How are the county lines flag and CCE flags used in practice to encourage professional curiosity? What are the benefits of the flags, and what are the risks?

  • Do we need to rethink popular assumptions around what is meant by ‘county lines’ (i.e. young people trafficked over a distance) to allow an improved response to emerging models? What are the benefits of a narrow ‘county lines’ focus, and is there still value in this label? Should we think instead more broadly about CCE, regardless of the model of exploitation used?


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