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County Lines and Looked After Children

Insights Report


Authors: Joe Caluori, Head of Research and Policy | Dr Molly Corlett, Junior Analyst | James Stott, Analyst

Thursday 3 December 2020


Since the National Crime Agency (NCA) published their first intelligence assessment in 2015, county lines has gone from being a little known phenomenon discussed by a small community of professionals to front page news in national newspapers, plot points in soap operas and the subject of documentaries and a movie. However, due to the lack of published data on the nature and scale of county lines exploitation, it remains an issue that generates heat but very little light.

Local authorities and police forces, with a few notable exceptions, do not publish data on children exploited in county lines, neither is this data routinely collected by central government departments. It is often unsafe for children and young people who have been involved in county lines to tell their stories, even anonymously, so first person accounts are relatively rare. County lines exploitation therefore presents us with a ‘data desert’, and the lack of published evidence has inhibited the ability of professionals to understand and respond to the evolving county lines threat.

Looked after children (LAC), who have been taken into local authority care as a statutory intervention to improve their welfare, are widely recognised as being at disproportionate risk of being groomed and exploited in county lines. As their ‘corporate parents’, the agencies of the state are collectively responsible for the welfare of these children. Yet, as these children are moved into accommodation, often at a great distance from their home area, sometimes in unregulated settings, their vulnerability to criminal exploitation increases.

Maps plotting known county lines show a multiplicity of lines extending from urban bases to coastal towns and market towns all over the county. These maps echo the distribution of looked after children from urban local authorities, sent to children’s homes and unregulated accommodation often hundreds of miles from home. The relationship between the movement of vulnerable adolescents around the country in care placements and the spread of county lines is therefore a matter of significant interest.

The county lines operating model is not uniform or static — it evolves in response to police tactics and local safeguarding practices. The ‘traditional’ model of county lines involved gangs grooming and exploiting looked after children from care settings in urban areas to go missing and transport and sell class A drugs in county bases. In many areas, this is gradually being replaced by a new ‘local franchise’ model of county lines, putting the growing numbers of looked after children who are placed at distance from their home area or in unregistered, unregulated settings, at greater risk.

Key findings

Looked after children are disproportionately represented in county lines networks — but they are not being systematically identified by police or local authorities

  • Data on children reported missing shows that children placed in residential care homes and unregulated settings are at a higher risk of going missing. In North Wales, 31 per cent of missing incidents in the last two years were reported from care, and in Merseyside, 41 per cent of incidents (and 18 per cent of children) were reported missing from residential care and unregulated settings. They were also more likely to go missing on numerous occasions.

  • However, the police are not consistently using county lines and child criminal exploitation (CCE) flags to identify heightened risk leading to a gap between data and operational understanding. For example, existing flags for CCE and for child sexual exploitation (CSE) flags are implausibly gendered and under-represent the number of young women and girls suffering CCE in addition to CSE, as well as the number of young men flagged as victims of CCE who suffer CSE.

  • The inconsistent identification and recording of CCE and CSE provides local police forces and local authorities with a huge barrier to managing risk, especially across borders, and a victim-focused and data-driven approach is required.

A growing number of looked after children are placed in care settings which do not protect them from criminal exploitation

  • The number of children taken into local authority care has increased in recent years. Much of this increase is accounted for by vulnerable adolescents, many of whom have come into care because of existing extra-familial risks.

  • When looked after children are placed in settings at distance from their home area, or in unregulated settings, their vulnerability to exploitation is amplified.

  • The ‘market’ for children’s social care placements is broken. There is a shortage of suitable placements close to home for vulnerable adolescents, meaning they are often placed in settings perhaps hundreds of miles from home, and in extremis in unregistered, unregulated settings.

  • There is also an acute shortage of therapeutic and specialist placements for children known to have been victims of criminal exploitation leaving them at risk of re-exploitation.

Inadequate information sharing between agencies leads to a poor safeguarding response

  • Local authorities and police forces lack a common set of vulnerability assessment tools and CCE flags. With no centrally directed approach there is currently an inconsistent patchwork of local responses.

  • This means that agencies are not able to share critically important information about vulnerable children in a timely manner across borders.

  • The lack of robust national data on children affected by CCE has also prevented the research community and statutory agencies from understanding the patterns of exploitation, designing interventions at national and local levels, and assessing the outcomes of current interventions.

  • The ‘National Referral Mechanism’ (NRM) enables agencies and localities to avoid taking responsibility for safeguarding exploited children by placing the decision with the Home Office, who will have little knowledge of the context and take on average 452 days to reach a decision.

The county lines operating model has proven to be highly adaptable

  • As the gangs and organised crime groups (OCGs) who operate county lines change their operating models in response to police tactics and local safeguarding practices, we have found evidence of an emergent ‘local franchise model’.

  • Grooming and exploitation is increasingly taking place in the ‘county bases’ — the point of sale for county lines, rather than in the ‘home bases’, the urban hinterlands of these gangs and OCGs.

  • Adaptations piloted by gangs during the first COVID-19 lockdown suggest that the most successful operators of county lines are moving towards new models of exploitation which will pose huge challenges to police forces in county dealing bases.

Principles for reform

Our research points us towards three broad principles which should guide the Government’s response to tackling county lines as it affects all children and young people.

  • Define the problem. There is currently no legal definition of child criminal exploitation (CCE) or county lines. A new legal framework is required to form the basis for the tools agencies use as part of a new national strategy.

  • A national strategic response. In order to safeguard looked after children from exploitation in county lines networks, an interdepartmental national strategy is required which manages vulnerabilities between local authorities and the police and across borders.

  • A joined up focus on prevention across government. The national leadership in tackling county lines remains with the Home Office. As a result, the emphasis is heavily on enforcement, as the levers necessary to develop a preventative safeguarding response sit within other government departments, particularly the Department for Education. This must change.

Key recommendations

  1. A legal definition of child criminal exploitation (CCE). The Government must legislate to create a statutory definition of CCE and county lines as the basis of a new national strategy.

  2. A new national strategy to tackle CCE. There is an acute need for an interdepartmental strategy jointly owned by the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Department of Health to balance the current emphasis on enforcement with a safeguarding approach.

  3. Fix the broken care ‘market’. The forthcoming Care Review must consider the exploitation of looked after children and support local authorities to create suitable placements for vulnerable adolescents near to their home area.

  4. Contextual safeguarding must guide distant placements. When local authorities place children in care homes ‘out of area’ they should conduct thorough and continuous risk assessments prior to placements including the police in this process.

  5. End the use of ‘unregulated care homes’ for looked after children. The government must urgently implement the recommendations of their review of the use of unregulated care settings, and go further, requiring that local authorities seek ministerial permission to place a looked after child in any unregulated accommodation.

  6. Reform the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for under 18s. Local authorities in the dealing bases of county lines should assume responsibility from the Home Office as the ‘competent authority’ for NRM referrals for under 18s so they take responsibility for trafficking and slavery in their area.


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