1. Introduction

The term county lines refers to gangs who operate in urban areas who supply drugs to suburbs, market and coastal towns; often crossing county borders.

The gangs use dedicated mobile phone lines, sometimes known as “deal lines”.  They use children and vulnerable people to move drugs and money.

County lines exploitation is widespread, with gangs from big cities including London, Manchester and Liverpool operating throughout England, Wales and Scotland.

Gangs create a base in their chosen target area, usually by taking over the homes of local adults who gang members have identified as vulnerable. They do this either by force or coercion (known as ‘cuckooing’).

This chapter is a summary of the County Lines guidance.

2. County Lines Crime Types

The different types of crimes that involve crossing county lines include:

  • drug use and supply,
  • violence,
  • gang activity,
  • safeguarding offences against adults and children,
  • criminal and sexual exploitation,
  • modern slavery,
  • and missing persons.

These crimes and the behaviour of the gangs involved, has a ruinous impact on young people, adults and the local communities who are targeted.

The response to tackle county lines crimes involves a number of partner agencies of the Safeguarding Adults Board including the police, local authorities and voluntary and community sector organisations. It also includes the National Crime Agency and a number of Government departments.

3. Effects on Young People and Adults who are Targeted

County lines crimes operate similarly to other types of abuse or exploitation. They can:

  • affect any child or young person, male or female, under 18 years old;
  • affect any adult aged 18 and over (including older people) who is vulnerable to being targeted;
  • still be exploitative even if people seem to consent to being involved;
  • involve force and/or enticement and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • be committed by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults.

Such crimes usually involve an imbalance of power between the abuser and the abused usually related to:

  • age;
  • gender;
  • cognitive ability;
  • physical strength;
  • status;
  • access to money or other resources.

Just because a child, young person or adult receives something in exchange for their involvement, this does not make them any less of a victim.

County lines exploitation often involves some form of exchange, where the victim is asked / told to carry drugs in return for something they want or need, for example:

  • money;
  • drugs;
  • clothes and
  • other rewards such as status, protection or ‘friendship’ or affection;
  • the prevention of threats by gangs being carried out against the victim’s family or friends.

4. Vulnerability

4.1 Vulnerable groups

Vulnerable groups identified through county lines research include the following:

  • Class A adult drug users are being targeted as their lifestyles leave them vulnerable to exploitation, particularly in relation to gangs taking over their accommodation.
  • Young people aged 15-16 years are in the most common age range for exploitation, although children as young as 10 have been known to be targeted. Children and young people are vulnerable to initial contact by criminal gangs through social media.
  • Both males and females can be targeted.
  • White British children can be more vulnerable to being targeted, because gangs believe they are more less likely to attract police attention.

4.2 Vulnerability factors

Vulnerability factors for country lines victims include:

  • previous experience of neglect, physical and / or sexual abuse, either as a child or adult;
  • unsafe or unstable home or homelessness now or in the past (this may be due to domestic violence, parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality);
  • social isolation or difficulties in forming friendships or relationships;
  • no / lack of stable or regular income;
  • connections with gang members;
  • physical or learning disabilities;
  • mental health or substance misuse issues;
  • history of being in care (particularly those in residential care or with an unsettled care history).

5. Risk Indicators

The following are indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation; those are the top of the list are of particular concern. Whilst the guidance references these in relation to young people, they also apply to adults:

  • often going missing from school or home and / or being found in another town, city or county;
  • unexplained possession of money, clothes, or mobile phone etc;
  • receiving an excessive number of texts or phone calls
  • involvement with controlling and / or older individuals or groups;
  • leaving home or care without saying where they are going;
  • concerns that they have been physically assaulted / have unexplained injuries;
  • concerns about them expressed by parents / carers / family / friends;
  • known or suspected of carrying weapons;
  • significant decline in school [or work] results / performance;
  • associating with gang members or isolating themselves from their previous friends or social groups;
  • self-harming and / or significant changes in their psychological well-being.

Any sudden changes in a young person or adult’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.

6.Taking Action

Where a practitioner has concerns that a child, young person or an adult is involved in county lines activity, they should first contact their manager or their designated safeguarding lead within their organisation (see Safeguarding Enquiries and Trafford Safeguarding Children’s Procedures).

The information should be shared with adults or children’s social care as appropriate (see Information Sharing and Confidentiality).

If a practitioner is concerned that a child, young person or adult is in immediate risk of harm, they should contact the police straightaway, dialling 999.

First responders (in relation to trafficking) should also refer any suspected victim to the National Referral Mechanism (see Modern Slavery).