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Children who become involved in county lines will almost undoubtedly be caught up in other safeguarding issues, potentially drugs, criminality, trafficking, modern slavery, sexual exploitation and gangs. It is extremely important that those involved in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults have an understanding of county lines. It is often described by law enforcement agencies as a phenomenon, presumably because of its dictionary definition – ‘a fact or occurrence which is not fully understood’. It is our view that county lines stopped being a phenomenon some time ago and is a very real threat to not only young people, but the wider public. In some parts of the UK the level of exploitation by organised gangs, is on par with recent major child sexual abuse scandals in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere. It has to be understood because we are very much playing catch up.

In our two previous articles we looked at what County Lines is, how it works and how criminal networks recruit children and vulnerable people. In this article we look at what you, the safeguarding professional, parent and carer can do to try and win back control, plus we take a look at the law relating to children.

How we should view County Lines

County Lines requires a multi-agency response with organisation’s sharing a collective responsibility to deal with the community impact of drug culture, violence and criminality, whilst ensuring that the primary consideration will always be the protection and safety of the child. The emphasis should be on prevention and creating positive changes and diversions in a young person’s life. There can be many similarities between county lines and those safeguarding issues relating to gang involvement. We recommend that you also read our  ‘Young People at Risk of Gang Involvement – More than just a statistic’ and ‘Gang Involvement – Spotting the signs’ articles.

Given the similarity with CSE it is maybe an apt time to remind ourselves of some of the bad practices that came out of those horrific cases, for there is a danger that county lines young people may be incorrectly viewed in the same way:

  • a perception that the child had brought in on themselves and was therefore blamed for their circumstances
  • an unwillingness to believe the child
  • professionals not caring
  • a view that a child deliberately put themselves at risk – ‘a lifestyle choice’
  • the child being seen as difficult and troublesome, particularly when engaging with professionals
  • ‘not willing to accept support’
  • a child seen as ‘streetwise’ and able to look after themselves
  • children found in potentially exploitative situations not being removed by police

Missing and the link between County Lines children

Firstly, a warning – whilst county lines is intrinsically linked to children that go missing, there are many examples of children that are used to deal locally. Don’t fall into the trap that just because a child is only missing overnight (or not all all), that they cannot be involved in county lines. Not all children are trafficked out to rural towns. In fact, there is an emerging pattern that criminal networks are using kids on short rota systems, so they are less likely to pop up on the ‘risk radar’.

Where there is a young person you suspect has gone missing and is involved in county lines you can:

  • Review the missing episodes. This applies even where you are a parent. Look for a pattern. Is the child a regular missing person and if so is there a change? We often find there is! Most missing children return within 24 hours and pretty much all by 48 hours. Is this child going for unusually extended periods? It is unusual for a child to be gone for several weeks? What means do they have of looking after themselves? Where could they possibly be securing shelter, food and cash?
  • Ask yourself why they might have gone missing. Is going missing new for this child? Have they previously not gone missing but have now been missing on several occasions in very short periods? This is a signal that something is up and the early signs that they are being groomed (either criminally or sexually).
  • Look at where they are located. County Lines children are less likely to “return of their own accord” but this cannot be ruled out. Criminal networks are clever and adapt quickly. They are becoming wise to the fact that using children for very long periods attracts attention and have begun to circulate their runners, using a rota system.
  • Has the child been found or discovered in a rural location that they have absolutely no ties to? What are the circumstances they were they found in? Have they been arrested for drugs offences or found in an area that drug supply is rife? Information sharing for missing children found in far off counties is often forgotten, with police concentrating more on returning the child to their home county/home. Don’t forget to follow up and ask the force that found the child for information around the circumstances of the finding/arrest. Be intrusive and get all the details.
  • Check for train tickets and receipts that may indicate where they have been.
  • Social Media – can this tell you anything. Most kids are secretive around their social media (see our CSE factsheets) but some like to advertise their ‘bling’ and cash for others to see. Some are so brazen we have seen them pose with wads of cash in one hand, a bottle of Moet in another, and a pistol tucked into their belt.
  • When they return are they tired, dirty, unkempt?
  • Are they stressed, frightened, panicky. It could be that they have lost the drugs or money and fear retribution.
  • What is the young person saying – most will be secretive and hostile when asked for information on where they have been, their movements and associations. Others will be more open, revealing titbits of information, particularly to other young people. Listen in on the conversation where possible. Who are they talking about? – vehicles, associates, locations. Record locations, names (usually nicknames or first names).
  • Know your ‘lingo’ – kids use terms such as “gone country”, “OT” (out there), “going up country”, “countch” or “bandos” (trap houses). Whether they are talking to friends or carers, listen out for these types of comments in general chat. Language is important.
  • Remember the cash factor – we know a lot of young people don’t get paid a great deal. However, some do carry cash (not necessarily their own). Are they in possession of cash they can’t account for? Are they hiding cash in their room or has substantial amounts been paid into a bank account they hold? Have they recently opened an account that you don’t know about or they shouldn’t have?
  • Who are their associates? Are they collected by anyone? Have they ‘friends’ significantly older?
  • Do they still have the same phone? If not, then why not and what’s happened to their old one. Is it a downgrade from the one they had?
  • Are they keeping in regular contact – be it with a parent, carer, social worker, police missing person unit? Professionals should be alert to the fact that regular contact doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is safe. We see many examples of missing children who are in exploitative situations, far from home, who have their phones taken from them, but are then allowed access to phones to make monitored calls home. For many professionals that phone call gives a false sense that a child is okay, and it is only a matter of time before they return. This is what the exploiter wants us to think and why they were allowed to make the call.
  • Weapons – look for weapons (knives, noxious substances etc) in their rooms.

It should be best practice for police missing person units to carefully assess all missing children reports to establish whether children are involved in county lines. This should include cross border checks with neighbouring areas. We would suggest that given the dangers and exploitative nature of county lines, where a child is missing and believed to be involved, then consideration should be given to classing them as a High Risk missing person.

What should we do?

Where a professional believes a child to be involved in County Lines, there should be no delay in making a safeguarding referral using the local areas agreed pathway process. Remember if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, a Section 47 Enquiry (Children Act 1989) should be initiated. This is to enable the local authority to decide whether they need to take any further action to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. The Children’s Act defines significant harm as:

  • Harm means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development including, for example impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another
  • Development means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development
  • Health means physical or mental health
  • Ill-treatment includes sexual abuse and forms of ill treatment which are not physical

We know that life as a runner exposes a child to situations which can harm their physical and/or mental health. They live in unsafe environments often exposed to; or subjected to threats or acts of extreme violence. Is this not impairing their development? Are these not grounds enough, that a child is likely to suffer significant harm if they are not found and removed from a harmful situation?

Police should be informed so that any trafficking, modern slavery and drug offences can be investigated.

A referral should be made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) by the first responder. Police and Social Care are first responders as well as other agencies and certain specified non-government agencies.

County Lines is still misunderstood within agencies. There is still a culture of viewing children who are involved in county lines as ‘willing participants’ and should be dealt with via the criminal justice system. This often means that following the correct guidelines and making referrals (safeguarding & NRM), is not always done. Whilst ultimately a court may have to decide the guilt of a young person or vulnerable adult, that does not mean that the general safeguarding principles and statutory guidance should not also be followed.

As already mentioned, several large child exploitation abuse scandals have clearly highlighted that many professionals across several agencies misunderstood, and in some cases ignored the scale of the abuse within their area. Individuals failed in their safeguarding duties with the system letting the victims down, – ‘a cultural denial’. It is important therefore that when engaging with the child or young person a professional is non-judgmental, listens, shows interest and demonstrates they care. Ensure that you view the situation from a safeguarding perspective even if you are a police officer who also has to look at the criminal aspects. Whilst young people and vulnerable adults may appear willing participants, they may well have been (or still are) controlled by powerful and violent criminals.

Non-engagement by a young person should not be viewed as a barrier. Finding a way out of their situation won’t be easy for them. There could be a number of factors that prevent the young person from engaging fully:

  • fear of repercussions towards themselves, family and friends
  • misguided loyalty towards their exploiters
  • continued controlled by the exploiters over the young person
  • owing the exploiters money – debt bondage
  • fear of arrest and imprisonment
  • deep distrust in social care and police
  • shame and embarrassment

What is the law relating to children caught up in County Lines?

 Are children that are used for County Lines victims of modern slavery and trafficked children? Are they being forced to commit criminal acts? We know that whilst some may enter willingly, many are groomed or coerced into this activity. Even those that may enter freely at first, later find themselves in exploitative situations that they cannot break free from. A child’s case should be looked at individually and there will always be some difficulties around the issue of consent, duress and a person voluntarily exposing themselves to illegal activity. However, regardless of the law, the moral question is – can children really make a ‘lifestyle choice’ to deal drugs for a criminal network that they then become ‘indebted’ to; an organisation that uses threats and extreme violence to enforce and keep control of their ‘business’?

To give some help on making those decisions, here is what the law says about human trafficking and modern slavery. We have highlighted in bold some words which are consistent with county lines issues:

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 combined existing offences of human trafficking and slavery and encompasses trafficking for all forms of exploitation. It came into force on 31st July 2015, simplifying existing offences into one act.

Section 2 Modern Slavery Act –  Arranging or facilitating the travel of another person with a view to exploitation.

A person commits an offence if the he/she arranges or facilitates the travel of another person (the victim) with a view to the victim being exploited

  • it is irrelevant whether the victim consents to the travel
  • a person may in particular arrange or facilitate a victim’s travel by recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring, receiving, transferring or exchanging control over the victim
  • a person arranges or facilitates the victims travel with a view to the victim being exploited only if the person intends to exploit the victim in any part of the world during or after travel; or the person knows or ought to know that another person is likely to exploit the victim in any part of the world during or after travel
  • Travel is defined as: arriving in, or entering, any country, departing from any country, or travelling within any country

So, when an ‘elder’ in a criminal county lines network packs a child from Birmingham off to a trap house in Swindon, with the express purpose of making or forcing them to run drugs, have they not arranged and facilitated the travel of that child for the purpose of exploitation.

Section 3 – defines the meaning of exploitation for the purposes of Section 2. A person is exploited only if one or more of the following apply:

slavery servitude and forced or compulsory labour;

securing services by force, threats or deception – where the person is subjected to force, threats or deception designed to induce him or her to:

  1. provide services of any kind
  2. to provide another person with benefits of any kind; or

to enable another person to acquire benefits of any kind.

Benefits are defined as any advantage derived by the trafficker, which could include financial gain, profit, personal benefit or privilege as well as state financial assistance. On conviction on indictment, it is life imprisonment. Given that a single ‘line’ can provide the criminal network with thousands of pounds a week, there is no doubt that there is financial gain involved for the trafficker. Seems self-explanatory, but unfortunately there is still a mindset nationally to treat children who are clearly involved in county lines, as suspects rather than potential victims. This is despite guidance to the contrary. Here is what the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance to Prosecutors says:

“Offending through “County Lines” is a national issue involving the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults by violent gang members in order to move and sell crack and heroin across the country, often associated with city-based organised crime gangs.

The victims are often children, aged 14 to 17 years, who are groomed with money, gifts or through relationships and forced to carry out day to day dealing. Children as young as 11 years of age have been reported as being recruited. Violence is used against drug users to coerce them to become runners, enforce debts, and use their accommodation as an operating base.

Prosecutors are encouraged to consider all available charges when considering a prosecution in connection with County Lines offending, including the Modern Slavery Act in circumstances where there has been deliberate targeting, recruitment and significant exploitation of young and vulnerable people. Prosecutors should, however, be alert to the challenge of securing a conviction for a Modern Slavery Act offence.

In such cases, victims should be referred through the NRM to establish their trafficking status. Where there may be consideration of charge and prosecution of vulnerable children or adults, prosecutors should consider applying the statutory defence or CPS policy on the non-prosecution of suspects who may be victims of trafficking.

However, prosecutors should also be alive to the fact that, if a person, by joining an illegal organisation or a similar group of people with criminal objectives and coercive methods, voluntarily exposes and submits himself to illegal compulsion, he cannot rely on the duress to which he has voluntarily exposed himself as an excuse either in respect of the crimes he commits against his will or in respect of his continued but unwilling association with those capable of exercising upon him the duress which he calls in aid: R v Fitzpatrick [1977] N.I.L.R. 20”.

So, it’s complicated and by no means guaranteed that a child can use the defence of duress. This is to cater for those young people that clearly go in with eyes wide open and have the capacity and ability to make informed decisions about actions they take. Some may argue that no child can make that choice, but in some cases that may just have to left to the criminal courts to decide.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 introduced a defence for victims of slavery and trafficking, who are forced to commit criminal offences. However, again it is not that clear whether a young person caught up in county lines would be able to rely on this defence. Section 45 (4) states –

A person is not guilty of an offence if –

  1. the person is under the age of 18 when the person does the act which constitutes the offence,
  2. the person does that act as a direct consequence of the person being, or having been, a victim of slavery or a victim of relevant exploitation, and

a reasonable person in the same situation and having the person’s relevant characteristics would do that act.

The Modern Slavery Act also placed a duty on police where a child commits a criminal offence (dependent on severity), and there is evidence that they may be a victim of trafficking. Police should complete a referral under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) system (see trafficking). Unlike adults the child’s consent is not required. If after the police have investigated the offence, there is clear evidence that a defence might apply, police may decide not to charge.

More helpful are the Sentencing Council Guideline on Drug Offences. They identify a list of aggravating features, some of which are relevant to gang related exploitation linked to drug supply. Where a young person has been convicted with an offence arising from county lines, the relevant aggravating factors should be brought to the attention of the court. This enables the court to decide on the appropriate sentence. Aggravating factors include:

  • involvement due to pressure, intimidation or coercion, falling short of duress
  • the offenders’ vulnerability was exploited
  • involvement through naivety/exploitation
  • age and /or lack pf maturity where it affects the responsibility of the offender
  • mental health or learning issues
  • no previous convictions or no relevant or recent convictions
  • performs a limited function under direction
  • very little awareness or understanding of the scale of the operation

What drug offences are young people likely to be arrested for?

  • Possession of a controlled drug – Section 5(2) Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
  • Possession of a controlled with intent to supply (commonly called PWITS) – Section 5(3) Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
  • Supplying or offering to supply controlled drugs – Section 4(3) Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
  • Allowing premises, you occupy or manage to be used for the consumption of certain controlled drugs (smoking of cannabis or opium but not use of other controlled drugs) or supply or production of any controlled drug – Section 8 Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
  • Conspiracy to supply controlled drugs – Section 1 Criminal Law Act 1977.

They may also be liable to arrest for money laundering offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, if they are found in possession of large amounts of cash.

Judicial Restrictions – The criminal law deals with most aspects of unlawful gang related activity, including specialist legislation that deals with violent offenders and proceeds from crime. However, there are several civil measures available that can be used to disrupt gang activity, divert young people away from gang activity and prevent coercion by others.

Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Orders Regulations 2017

This is a relatively new piece of legislation and is not yet being used widely by law enforcement agencies within the UK, but it will be. It provides police forces with the opportunity to apply to a court for a Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Order (DDTRO). When granted, the order places a requirement on the  communication providers to disconnect a communication device, phone number or anything else used with a communication device, that is being used in connection with drug dealing offences. The police have to satisfy the court that the item (communication device), has been, is likely to have been, or likely to be used in the future, in drug dealing offences.

You can also read:

County lines, the children exploited to deal drugs by criminal networks

How do criminal networks recruit and exploit young people? 

 NCA – County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017 – National Briefing Report

Government Guidance – Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines


Safeguarding Hub

Safeguarding Hub

The Safeguarding Hub has been developed by Andy Passingham and Paul Maslin as a way of sharing information relating to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. This website and the articles produced by Andy and Paul have been created in their own time outside of their current police roles.

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