County lines and gang crime: warning signs and strategies

County lines and gang crime: warning signs and strategies

News article from October 4, 2018

The topic of ‘county lines’ and gang crime feature in the news a lot lately – especially when it’s involving young people. In this blog post, our Safeguarding Manager, Daniel Jarrett, writes about Child Criminal Exploitation. He outlines the young people most at risk, the signs to be aware of, and how to support a young person involved. He also draws upon a powerful case study from his own experience.


Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) is defined as “the criminal exploitation of children and young people to commit offences and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18”.

CCE is common in county lines, which is the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults to carry and sell drugs from borough to borough and across county boundaries.

An NCA report, County Lines Violence, Exploitation and Drug Supply, estimated that there are currently over 720 lines across England and Wales – with London being the largest hub of county lines groups (having 283). The youngest reported child involved in county lines was 12, with even younger children found in dealers’ homes. An estimated 85% of county lines members carry knives and another 3⁄4 carry firearms.

The children and young people most at risk of becoming involved in county lines include:

  • Young people from dysfunctional and chaotic family backgrounds
  • Boys (14/15); although girls are also involved in the exploitation process
  • Looked After Children
  • Young people who have experienced previous neglect/abuse
  • Young people who have previous/current offending behaviour
  • Young people who are classed as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)

An up-and-coming Home Office report is to warn that gangs have been specifically targeting children who have been excluded from school to groom them as drug dealers in towns across the UK.

Some of the warning signs for practitioners to be aware of include young people who:

  • Often go missing or stay outside of the area
  • Have new friends
  • Have unexplained money/possessions
  • Are found in possession of weapons
  • Have two phones
  • Are involved with older people
  • Have unexplained injuries and/or increased appetite
  • Have a history of family involvement in gangs
  • Display changes in behaviour (anger, self-harm)

The issue is prevalent in all London boroughs and the impact of county lines can be seen across the UK where young people from the London area have been arrested as far away as Aberdeen and Cornwall in possession of drugs. Vulnerable adults are also exploited in the process of county lines as their homes are taken over as bases to sell drugs (this is often referred to as cuckooing).

Case Study

Simon was 13 when I began working with the family. He had been referred for extra support by the school as they reported aggressive behaviour in class, poor attendance, and suspected involvement with older people in the community. During the initial home-visit, Simon’s mum said that he regularly stayed out late in the evening and sometimes stayed over at friends’ house; however, she did not know who these friends were. Simon did not have a curfew and so I initially advised mum to ensure that a curfew was set. I spoke to Simon about his friendship groups but he was reluctant to talk and eventually became angry and left the house. I advised mum to ensure that if Simon did not return by his curfew, that she should call the police and report him as missing.

One week later, Simon was caught in possession of cannabis and was referred to the local YOT Diversionary Worker. We quickly established a multi-agency network around the family including Simon’s school mentor. All professionals were concerned about Simon’s friendship group as they were all older and had no discernible relationship with any of Simon’s previous friends.

Simon was then reported missing by his mum after not returning home after school. He had left without any belongings except for his phone and wallet. Mum immediately reported this to the police and social care. After 2 days, Simon made contact with his mum to say he was ok but did not return home for another 5 days. He returned looking unkempt and mum also said that he was extremely hungry. A return-home interview was completed
but Simon did not speak about where he had been or what he had been doing.

The YOT worker and I decided to meet with Simon away from the home and although he was very reluctant at first, he eventually disclosed that he had been asked by a local gang to sell drugs and had been arrested with their cannabis. As a result, the gang had then threatened Simon that either he sold further drugs for them or they would seriously hurt his family. He said that when he had been missing, he had been in Scotland selling drugs and staying in a house where he had been very scared all the time. We told Simon that he had done the right thing in telling us and we would liaise immediately with the police, social care, and housing to try and move the family away from the local area.

An immediate strategy meeting was arranged and housing and social care were thankfully quick to act due to the risk to Simon and his family. They managed to find a property for the family in an area of safety. Simon and his family moved immediately and we ensured that the local social care department and Simon’s new school were made aware of the risk and a mentor was assigned to Simon to work with him moving forward.


The early identification of young people at risk of becoming involved in county lines is paramount so immediate support can be offered; however, if you believe a young person is involved in county lines you should contact your local social care department as well as informing the police. You can also make a referral to the National Referral Mechanism (see link below).

In order to support young people who you feel are at risk, you can:

  • Ensure safety plans and Emergency Telephone Nos are discussed with the young person and their parents/carers
  • Establish contact with local Youth Offending Teams and youth centres
  • Establish a multi-agency approach
  • Look at potential diversionary activities and support networks in the community

Further Resources


A service that allows you to pass on information about crime 100% anonymously

Home Office: Criminal Exploitation of Children & Vulnerable Adults (Sept 2018)

This guidance outlines what ‘county lines’ (and associated criminal exploitation) is, signs to look for in potential victims, and what to do about it.

National Referral Mechanism

A framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.

NCA: County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017

A report seeking to inform the six refreshed priorities of the Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation programme.

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