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The following has been taken from Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance published by the Home Office in July 2017

What is County Lines and Child Criminal Exploitation?

County lines is the term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money, and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

Child Criminal Exploitation is where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of poer to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator of facilitator and/or (c) through violence or the threat of violence. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

Gangs establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the homes of local vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.
County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons; and the response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations.

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities.

The National Crime Agency have published County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017 National Briefing Report (November 2017)’ providing a national overview on the threat of ‘county lines’ drug supply, violence and exploitation. It supports Home Office, NPCC and wider stakeholder priorities including those of the Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation (EGVE) programme. In particular, this report contributes towards the EGVE objective of ‘Tackling County Lines’.

The Children’s Society have also produced Toolkit for working with children and young people trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation in relation to ‘County Lines’

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

If you are concerned that a child is being exploited please call

Peterborough on 01733 864170 (Open 9am – 5pm from Monday to Friday)

Cambridgeshire on 0345 045 1362 (Open 8am – 5:30pm Monday to Thursday; 8am – 4:30pm (Friday).

If they are in immediate danger call 999

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