County lines is a growing area of concern in safeguarding and is the cause of regular headlines in all forms of media. This article provides a quick guide for schools on what they need to know to help safeguard their pupils.


What is county lines?


County lines is a growing area of concern in safeguarding and is the cause of regular headlines in all forms of media. This article provides a quick guide for schools on what they need to know to help safeguard their pupils.

The government defines county lines as “a 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.”

County lines is a part of child criminal exploitation (CCE), which is defined as occurring “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. 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.”

In 2017, the National Crime Agency (NCA) report, ‘County Lines Gang Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply’, revealed that 88 percent of police forces had established county lines activity within their areas.

In 2017, the NCA estimated that there were at least 720 county lines across England and Wales – based on data provided by police forces, at least 283 of those originated in London, with other urban hubs continuing to emerge.






This involves targeting vulnerable people, such as those with SEND or mental health problems. The gang or network will befriend them, give them drugs and encourage them to build up ‘drug debts’ that can only be paid off by allowing their address to be used as a ‘trap house’ – a base for drug storage and selling, runners to stay, and other elements of the network’s operation away from its urban base. This process is often associated with sexual exploitation and abuse.




The lines in county lines refers to the telephone lines that callers use to obtain drugs. The individuals involved will change their phone numbers regularly, though the principal number remains a constant and closely guarded secret. There is considerable use of second lines, dual SIMs and pay-as-you-go phones.




Children will travel as runners to deliver drugs and collect money using rail networks, bus and coach services and, on occasion, taxis. They carry varying amounts of drugs, but often these are relatively small. Dealers will use the little-and-often approach, combined with replacing or rotating runners to avoid detection. In 2017, 30 percent of police forces reported incidents of ‘plugging’, where drugs are carried internally – this has associated health risks.


How does it work?


County lines is, in part, a business model for drug dealing, where a gang or criminal network from an urban area travel to rural or coastal towns to sell drugs. They will then recruit and exploit children to take on various roles within the drug supply chain – it often involves complex and highly organised criminal networks.

The gang will identify a new ‘market’ in a rural or coasting area, before establishing a base, taking control of the market, distributing their phone number to drug users and using this market to make their own drugs. When the phone number is called, the principal (or leader of the gang/network) calls a ‘runner’ to make the delivery and collect the money.

The initial contact and process of grooming is usually made on the street or through school. Social media is also used as a method of contact, which appears to be increasing as children recruit other children.

As with child sexual exploitation (CSE), there is an imbalance of power and an element of exchange: the victim carries drugs and/or money, and in return they are offered, promised or given something they need or want. This exchange can include both tangible items, such as money, drugs or clothes, and intangible rewards, such as status, protection or perceived friendship. Once involved, and through deception, coercion and manipulation, the child is exploited to work long hours for little or no money, using high levels of intimidation and violence – including the use of knives, corrosives and firearms.

Victims can also be coerced into county lines to prevent something negative from happening, for example, after receiving threats of harm to them or their family. The constant threat of violence can cause trauma or mental and physical health issues, and is often combined with sexual violence and exploitation. Children can be kept in a state of drug debt, sometimes through the use of staged robberies conducted by principals on their own runners.

The element of exchange does not make the child less of a victim; however, as with CSE, the child does not always see themselves as a victim. The hierarchical nature of criminal networks means that many children are both victims and perpetrators of exploitation and drug trafficking.

This dual status and the cross-national nature of the networks makes county lines difficult to prosecute and investigate. There have been significant discrepancies in police approaches to the children involved. The government has now set up a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to support a multi-agency, unified approach between police forces.


Identifying children more at risk


Police have reported the involvement of children as young as 12; however, the most common age is 15 to 16, including males and females. While there is no single profile of a child at risk from criminal exploitation, the increased risk indicators are like those for involvement with gangs and CSE, including:

  • Having previous experience of neglect or physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • A lack of a safe and stable home environment, whether current or in the past. This could include homelessness or insecure accommodation status, domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality.
  • Being in care – particularly those in residential care or those with interrupted care histories. Gangs believe that these children will be treated more leniently if caught, and those with independent accommodation can become victims of cuckooing.
  • Social isolation or difficulties.
  • Economic vulnerability.
  • Connections with other people involved in gangs.
  • Having SEND.
  • Having mental health or substance misuse issues.

Being excluded from school can be a significant trigger for involvement in county lines, particularly if the child is sent to an alternative provision and is not attending full time.

Schools should also consider the use of street slang – this is constantly changing so it is important to stay up-to-date with language that could be a potential indicator.

When considering children’s vulnerability to this form of exploitation, it is important to take a contextual safeguarding approach. This emphasises that, as well as threats to the welfare of children from within their families, children may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation from outside their families.


Signs of exploitation


As with any form of abuse, a key indicator will be a change in the child’s behaviour or presentation. Additionally, changes to the following may also be apparent:

  • Their social group
  • School attendance and punctuality
  • Significant decline in school results/performance
  • Emotional wellbeing, including signs of self-harm
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes or mobile phones
  • Involvement with drugs or alcohol
  • Going missing from school or home and being found out-of-area
  • Excessive receipt of texts/phone calls or having multiple devices
  • Relationships with controlling/older individuals or groups
  • Leaving home or care without explanation
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Parental concerns
  • Carrying weapons
  • Association with gangs or isolation from peers/social networks

The police have been asked to consider:

  • Children not known to services, particularly if they are found in a rural location far from home. Some gangs will favour these children, as they are less likely to come to the authorities’ notice.
  • Missing children.
  • Lifestyle changes, e.g. young people who have new shoes, clothes, phones or amounts of money they can’t account for.
  • Children with large sums of money.
  • Ethnicity – gangs will often identify children who will not stand out in a rural or coastal location.


Managing concerns


If you believe that a child is involved in county lines, there should be no delay in making a safeguarding referral using your school’s reporting procedures. The police or social care will then, if they consider the child to be a potential victim, refer them through the NRM to ensure they receive the right support.

Ensure that your Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy covers county lines, so that staff are aware of what it means, the indicators that a pupil may be involved, and how to report concerns – our model policy can be used as a basis.




DfE (2018) ‘Keeping children safe in education’

Home Office (2018) ‘Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance’

National Crime Agency (2017) ‘County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017’

Safeguarding Hub (2017) ‘County lines, the children exploited to deal drugs by criminal networks’, <> [Accessed: 31 October 2018]

University of Bedfordshire (2017) ‘Child sexual exploitation’


Related terms: KCSIE, keeping children safe in education, safeguarding, child protection, crime.