County Lines- Introduction, Information and Guidance
County Lines- Introduction, Information and Guidance
An introduction to the criminal operation known as “County lines”. A method of illegally transporting drugs from one area to other areas using children or vulnerable young people who are coerced by organised crime groups.
1. Introduction to County Lines
It is so important that Foster carers, providers and indeed anyone caring for vulnerable children across the UK are aware of County Lines, what it is, how it works and the warning signs to look out for.
County Lines is a term used to describe Organised Crime Groups (OCG’s) drugs operations. The ‘Lines’ are the specific mobile phone “lines”, which are used as a way to communicate and move drugs from urban cities to smaller towns and coastal areas in another “county”. It is what many of us would refer to it as ‘drug dealing’ however this is far more sinister as it involves child criminal exploitation and is becoming an increasing problem in the UK.
County Lines involves organised crime networks and gangs who groom and exploit vulnerable children to sell drugs. There is evidence that looked after children are at higher risk of being targeted by these organisations to sell drugs on their behalf. The drugs involved are usually heroin and cocaine but can also include amphetamines and cannabis. County lines are not a single-issue problem, it involves drugs, violence, gangs, child criminal and child sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons.
Source: Home Office, 2020
2. How does it work?
How do they recruit?
County Lines relies on recruiting or targeting children aged 14-17 as they are usually least likely to be known to Police and will generally receive lenient sentences for offending behaviour if caught. The children we care for are already disadvantaged and possibly carry labels such as ‘absconders’ or ‘young offenders’ and therefore are seen as prime recruitment opportunities for gangs. Children as young as 8 have been exploited according to National Crime Agency (NCA).
Once recruited they can be forced to carry money and drugs between locations selling drugs to local users and usually use public transport such as trains and coaches. Social media is used as a way for younger members to identify potential new recruits either through personal contacts or as a way of connecting with other young people who will initially be groomed for recruitment.
How are children groomed?
Grooming is insidious as it usually starts with faux friendship either on social media or through peers.
The common steps of a child being groomed are:
- Initially befriended either in person or on social media.
- They may be given gifts and are shown warmth by their new ‘family’ which may also be referred to as a ‘sister/brotherhood’.
Once they have been ‘groomed’ this will usually lead to being supplied with drink or drugs which becomes a ‘debt’. To repay the debt the young person will be expected to deliver/collect or deal drugs. They may be exposed to violence as a way of keeping them in line and they can be threatened with weapons or harm to family/friends if they don’t comply.
[CEO from the charity escapeline.org.uk. November 2023]
Why are looked after children more vulnerable?
Research shows us that children already at risk or involved with Children’s Services are more likely to be targeted.
Children experiencing difficulties at home due to social and economic reasons may already be known to Social Services. Gang members will seize the opportunity to exploit their vulnerabilities and lure them into believing that the offer of being part of a “family”, of being shown warmth even if this is not genuine, by meeting material and basic needs such as food are all part of the grooming process to make a child believe they belong to a “sisterhood/brotherhood” that will care about them.
It is understandable that young people will find it hard to distinguish between the genuine care provided by a carer and that offered by those wishing to exploit them.
Why do children and young people find it difficult to say no?
Once a child has been groomed by a gang they will use many tactics to intimidate and threaten young people to prevent them from leaving or potentially exposing their operation. Violence and weapons can be used to threaten individuals during recruitment, and also violently assault those ‘working’ for them if they find their drugs or money to be missing.
Gang leaders have been found to use other gang members to mug the new recruits and take the money or drugs they were carrying, ensuring the young people are then ‘in debt’ to the gang for ‘losing’ these items. These drug debts are then used to coerce young people into further County Lines activities. Groups will sometimes threaten family members of new recruits, using violence and intimidation to ensure engagement and cooperation with the network.
Children are heavily manipulated and often don’t see themselves as victims or realise that they have been groomed to get involved in criminal activity. Therefore it is vitally important to be vigilant and able to spot the signs and seek support if you feel someone in your household may be involved.
3. How does it affect foster carers and all those caring for vulnerable children?
Understandably for a child who is being cared for the intimidation and threats can often lead to the child sabotaging the placement as a way to escape and at times possibly to protect the carer, who will have no idea of the level of the threat being made at the child, and who could have been so focussed on an exciting new ‘family’ who give them gifts and show affection that they would never envisage where this has led and now has no way to escape the situation.
As a carer, this will look very different and you may recognise some of these:
- Escalations in behaviour that becomes increasingly challenging and possible aggressive or abusive.
- Managing crisis after crisis as the child will not adhere to boundaries.
- Daily reports of a Child Missing, return home and Police visits to the home causing disruption.
- Managing the return home, you can be left with an angry child and possibly under the influence of drink or drugs.
- Trying to keep the placement stable and build a relationship with the child which they are reluctant to be part of.
- Managing education expectations or lack of engagement.
- Attempting to work with a care plan for contact and other appointments.
- Balancing the effects on the household with the possibility of a placement ending.
4. What to look for
As mentioned previously, here are some of the signs of exploitation to watch out for in the children you care for.
- Young people are frequently absent from school or missing from home.
This is always a cause for concern, not always due to involvement in County Lines but important to stay vigilant.
- Young people regularly travel alone to places far from home.
Tickets from travel which is not part of their daily routine.
- Unexplained wealth, gifts including new phones, clothing/trainers.
- Increased phone use, especially an increase in calls.
Particularly late at night which is persistent. If a child has a ‘Trap phone’ (mobile phone specifically for the purpose of running and selling drugs) and doesn’t answer the consequences will not be worth the requests from us as carers to “turn it off”.
Reactions to any boundaries around phone use are also a possible indication that there may be a concern. The ‘trap phones’ are generally supplied and funded by the organised crime group (OCG) and are dedicated phones purely for the activity of county lines.
This is likely to be an additional phone so if you ask for phones to be in a safe place overnight you may not get to see this one.
- Are you aware they are carrying or supplying drugs?
Be aware of the signs and be vigilant. You may be used to the signs of recreational drug use in a young person but notice that something has changed recently.
Share everything with the child’s and your own social worker and make sure you back it up in an email. Whilst no one should make assumptions, you do need to gather all the evidentiary pieces together and keep agencies fully informed.
- Are they carrying weapons?:
Any weapons found should be reported immediately to the CSW and your SSW. If you suspect or the young person reveals they have a weapon, remain calm and avoid escalating any situation within the home.
Where possible provide distractions until you are able to seek advice from your service provider on how they want the situation managed. This may involve calling the Police (only with the written confirmation from your fostering provider/SSW/CSW) they will make decisions such as who else is at risk and what happens next. If your provider is aware of any risks these should be shared with you.
- Some other signs to be aware of:
- New controlling relationships with someone older and unknown.
- Unexplained or unusual injuries or possibly hiding injuries especially slashes to thighs or other areas of the body which are hidden from view.
- Reserved and secretive behaviour.
- Words, jargon and slang that you haven’t heard before.
- Appearing fearful.
- Either new signs of self-harm or emergence of self-harm behaviours.
- Not eating.
- Appearing under the influence of drink or drugs.
- Possibly self medicating or not taking medication prescribed.
Knowing our neighbourhoods and being vigilant about what is happening in local areas and parks is important. Criminals will often operate in plain sight where they can blend in and continue with their activity undisturbed.
These can be some of the signs:
- An increase in visitors and might not always be the same people.
- An increase in cars or bikes outside.
- Hot boxing, where weed is smoked in an enclosed space to keep the fumes enclosed, like a car, and is usually with others.
- You haven’t seen the person who lives in a house recently or when you have, they have been anxious or distracted. This can be a sign of ‘cuckooing’ or a “traphouse”, often vulnerable people are targeted by gangs and their houses used for illegal activity.
- Signs of drug use, discarded drugs.
As Foster Carers we become experts in terminology. OCG (Organised Crime Gang) and CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Source) are the most used, and below are some other examples, however, it’s good to bear in mind that this terminology is ever-changing.
- Clean skin
Usually refers to someone young and unknown to the Police or social services.
Vulnerable people are at risk of violence and intimidation to create a base for operating as a ‘trap house’ in their home.
- Bando or Spot
The name that is given to a house used for cuckooing by gang members.
- Going country, OT or Going Cunch
A term to describe county lines activity can also mean travelling to another city/town to deliver drugs or money.
The act of selling drugs. Trapping can refer to the act of moving drugs from one town to another or the act of selling drugs in a location.
A building is used as a base from where drugs are sold (or sometimes manufactured). These houses are usually occupied by adult drug users but sometimes young people are also forced to stay there.
- Trapline, Deal line or Trap phone
A mobile phone specifically for the purpose of running and selling drugs.
Bank card details.
- Organised Crime
A gang that has a structure (a hierarchy) and a purpose. It will be organised like a business, but one that operates outside the law. Those at the top often have access to significant amounts of money and have a lot of power over those below them.
- Faces and Elders
These are middle-ranking gang members. They are the buffer between those at the top and those on the street and could be disposed of if required. Those lower down in the gang will often look up to and be intimidated by the elders. They often use violence.
- Street gangs
These are the people at the bottom of the gang structure, on the street, although there may be a hierarchy here too. Soldiers and Youngers are recruited and controlled to sell drugs.
Wannabes may have aspirations to climb up higher in the gang. They may want what they see as the glamour or sense of belonging that comes with being in a gang or they may believe that this is the only way they can earn money or gain the drugs they need. Others may be forced/coerced (so-called reluctant affiliates) or become involved because their boyfriend/girlfriend is involved.
This refers to opposing, as in a rivalling neighbourhood gang
This is where things have been concealed for transporting, usually inserted into the rectum or vagina.
A drug dealer
A gram of illegal drugs
A quarter of an ounce of illegal drugs
Here is the “Professional’s County Lines Toolkit” from the Children’s Society that includes a more comprehensive and up to date list of the slang used in County Lines and OCG’s.
6. How to take action
There should be multi-agency support available to you and your child or young person as well as being vigilant, looking for signs of county lines activity and understanding criminal terminology, it is also vital to communicate with the children and young people in your
household, be open-minded and non-judgmental in these interactions.
Remember that if a child discloses information or you have concerns it is your responsibility to share these concerns and that this becomes a multi-agency decision. It is their role to decide that a child is definitely involved in County Lines and we must continue to work with the team around the child to ensure that their safety is the main priority.
7. Things to be mindful of
- Be vigilant and knowledgeable on the signs of grooming and County Lines activity.
- Be careful in making assumptions, whilst still staying aware.
- It is the foster carer’s role to report everything to the child’s social worker and their own social workers and for those people and the wider team to take action.
- Record everything, you may have online recordings but also may want to back up phone calls and conversations in emails, in order to keep accountability.
- Don’t address things too head-on, as you can see from this page young people can get themselves into some frightening relationships with organised crime and maybe ‘frightened off’ and clamp down. Report everything and be led by instructions and guidance from your fostering provider who will consult with experts and the police.
8. How the Law affects children in our care
If adults who work with children don’t understand that county lines is a form of abuse, they may see children involved in county lines activity as criminals rather than as victims of criminal exploitation.
It’s important as a Carer to understand how the Law affects children in our care who may have been or are at risk of exploitation: Possessing or selling drugs is a crime under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. Selling (referred to as supply) carries harsher penalties and can result in imprisonment.
Carrying weapons is a way for some gang members, or those worried about gang pressures, to protect themselves. Getting caught with a knife or weapon is also an offence under the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 and the Prevention of Crime Act of 1953. Knife crimes will usually result in a charge to court. Criminal proceedings can vary from a locally agreed low-level resolution agreed out of court, which doesn’t result in a formal criminal record, right up to imprisonment.
Knife crimes generally carry higher sentences and usually result in a charge to court. Police and prosecutors will make decisions depending on the age of the person carrying the weapon and the circumstances however, Police have recognised that many young people drawn into gang association are very vulnerable and should be treated as victims. Sometimes those victims will have committed an offence that needs dealing with as well, but the police focus has now changed to try to protect unwilling victims caught up in gang membership.
Police also recognise that criminalising vulnerable young children through association can impact their futures who have been unwillingly caught up in gang activity. One of the laws used to prosecute those who exploit young people in his way is the Modern Slavery Act of 2015.
Anyone forced into selling drugs, whether locally or by being transported to other areas, is a victim of slavery and trafficking. They can be supported through a process called the National Referral Mechanism, which many public authorities (e.g., police and local authorities) and charitable organisations (e.g., Barnardo’s) can refer to.
Information, Help and Support
Help and support created for foster carers, by foster carers, we are the experts by experience. We have the first foster carers knowledge bank. If you are worried that a child or young person in your care may be involved in County Lines then immediately contact your fostering provider through your supervising social worker and the child’s social worker. They should act immediately. For help and support in your role as a foster carer, or if you feel you are not being listened to, see our FosterWiki help and support page.
Access both the open pages and members area. Both are free to access and footprint-free. The member’s area gives you privileged confidential access to FosterWiki’s experts by experience for advice and guidance. You will also find short courses and guides from the foster carer’s perspective, top tips, allegation help, templates, and the ability to add to FosterWiki. With more content being uploaded regularly.
Please let us know what information or advice pages you would find useful and we will put them in place. https://fosterwiki.com/register/
10. Useful Links
- County Lines (2019) – A video about A 14-year-old-boy who is groomed into a criminal network that involves drug smuggling. [Henry Blake, 2019]
- Child protection in Scotland
- Child protection in Northern Ireland
- National Crime Agency County Lines information [NCA, n.d.]
- NSPCC – Protecting children from county lines [NSPCC, 2021]
- Safeguarding in Schools – County Lines [Andrew Hall, 2017]
- Child protection in England
- Child protection in Wales
- County lines: Criminal Exploitation of children and Vulnerable Adults [UK Gov, 2018]
Escapeline is a charity committed to the prevention of the criminal and sexual exploitation of young people by gangs across South West England, with a particular focus on Dorset and Somerset. For years, thousands of children have been exploited through the practice of County Lines, in which highly organised urban gangs take over provincial drugs markets. County Line gangs are increasing their operations to recruit local youngsters from small towns rather than the big cities and South West England has been particularly targeted.
Escapeline help young people to stay safe by educating them about how child exploitation and grooming works in their local area and teaching them protective strategies. We strengthen community knowledge of child exploitation by running awareness-raising campaigns and we help the families of exploited young people, and those at risk of exploitation, through non- judgemental support and mentoring. Much of our work is conducted in schools and we also work alongside the police and local authorities, taking their referrals to support the children identified as most at risk of exploitation. As part of our legacy, we also train professionals working with vulnerable young people, in the signs and stages of child criminal exploitation, in order that they are better equipped to protect children in their care.