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Child exploitation

County Lines: what is it and what can we do to tackle it

Close-up of hands holding a mobile phone.

“You good for Monday, yeah? I have paid for ya ticket and got you those trainers you wanted, remember you’re going to this address and picking that package up, keep ya phone on, don’t talk to anyone and you will be looked after, just remember don’t mess this up.”

As simple as that, this young person is now part of a county line.

What is “County Lines”?

A county line is a phone line used by a gang to coordinate drug dealing across the country, the term county line can also be reference to the phone line used or the geographical route between counties to distribute drugs.

How big is the problem and who is affected?

The most recent statistics from the National Crime Agency suggests there are more than 2,000 individual deal lines in the UK linked to approximately 1,000 branded county lines. According to figures from The Children’s Society, 46,000 children in England are thought to be involved in gangs, 84% of parents are worried about county lines in their area and 4,000 teenagers are being criminally exploited in London alone.

All drugs in the UK distributed have more than likely passed through a county line. So what makes it different to drug importation and day to day drug dealing on the street? The difference is the long term coordination and logistical planning that is needed for a county line to work effectively. To do this you need numbers, you need people. And you need people that won’t ask questions, people that want to be part of a something and people that need money. Unfortunately, the demographic that meets this criteria is the young and vulnerable of our country.

How do they recruit?

The recruitment side of things is as planned and coordinated as the county line itself, with perpetrators often using a number of means to reach the young and vulnerable. Social media platforms are being used by these gangs to target individuals, going as far as to post upmarket adverts with the tag line “recruitment opportunities available”.  These adverts normalise county lines, making them seem legitimate and acceptable – like a professional job advert.

If the perpetrators can normalise the action, they can manipulate and recruit young and vulnerable people.

Online gaming is also being used to reach young people, through private chats and reach young people who would not be reachable via social media. If the gang can create a safe environment for the young person to open up – and turn to them instead of peers and parents – then they can isolate and manipulate that person, more often than not leaving parents and carers unaware.

Once recruited, social media is used to coordinate individual details, promote deliveries and to encourage violence towards other rival gangs. The key to any ‘successful’ county line is communication. and social media is an effective tool to do this, with fake online profiles created to protect the perpetrator’s true identity.

What can we do to tackle County Lines?

Communication between statutory organisations, charities, professionals, social media and communities is imperative in protecting our young people from exploitation. We need communities to be aware of exploitation and indicators, to share information and intelligence with statutory organisations and to create safe spaces in the community for young people to access and seek help. We need social media platforms to be quick in shutting down accounts.

What can we do to protect our children?

Although often easier said than done, having a safe and open environment at home is probably the best way to minimise the risk of a child being criminally exploited. If a child feels safe and secure then they are more likely to talk about any unusual online behaviour they encounter online and raise concerns before they’re drawn into dangerous situations.

But we know that perpetrators are using increasingly sophisticated grooming techniques – and it’s easy for anyone, no matter what their background, to be drawn in.

What we do know though, is that the cost of living crisis is exacerbating young people’s vulnerability to this sort of abuse – as many feel compelled to earn money to support both their, and their families, stand of living.

To seriously reduce risks of exploitation and county lines we need everyone to be aware of the signs and indicators, to share information and therefore to bring perpetrators to justice. But we also we need to reduce vulnerability amongst our young people that makes them easier victims – which means support for the most hard hit families, good access to mental health services and far earlier intervention when we know a child or young person is struggling.