County lines is a term used to describe gangs, groups or drug networks that supply drugs from urban to suburban areas across the country, including market and coastal towns, using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. They exploit children and vulnerable adults to move the drugs and money to and from the urban area, and to store the drugs in local markets. Victims are recruited using intimidation, deception, violence, debt bondage or grooming. During this process the ‘victims’ are likely to commit criminal offences.
The most common drugs involved are heroin and cocaine (crack and powder), but also MDMA, cannabis, amphetamines and spice. Children as young as 12 years old and up to 17 years old are recruited, often using social media. They are exploited and forced to carry drugs between locations, usually on trains or coaches. They are also forced to sell drugs to local users.
Gangs and networks are also known to target vulnerable adults and take over their premises to distribute Class A drugs in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.
County Lines puts people at risk of criminal and sexual exploitation, as well as serious harm through physical and sexual violence and emotional abuse.
How does it affect young people and vulnerable adults?
Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:
- can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;
- can affect any vulnerable adult over the age of 18 years;
- can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;
- can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
- can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; and
- is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation.
Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.
One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm his/her family.
Signs to look out for
A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A young person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a young person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.
Some indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:
- Persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area;
- Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
- Excessive receipt of texts / phone calls
- Relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups
- Leaving home / care without explanation
- Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
- Parental concerns
- Carrying weapons
- Significant decline in school results / performance
- Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
- Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being
Cuckooing is a form of crime in which drug dealers take over the home of a vulnerable person in order to use it as a base for drug dealing. Here are some things that can indicate ‘cuckooing’
- More comings and goings, including people you haven’t seen before, throughout the day and night, visiting for short periods of time
- Bags of clothing or bedding around the property
- An increase in crime and anti-social behaviour in and around the property
- An increase in the number of vehicles outside the property including taxis or hire cars
- Evidence of drug use such as deal bags, discarded syringes, weighing scales, foil and cling film in and around the property.