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County lines – the child criminal exploitation on our doorsteps

Posted on Monday, August 5th, 2019

By Ben Lewis

We are relatively familiar with the concept of children being exploited by criminals hoping to cash in – the horrors of sweatshops in distant countries possibly comes to mind. We might even be aware of how this isn’t so distant, but impacts on us directly in the supply chains which bring products to us. What is easy to miss, though, is the way children can be exploited in our own country by gangs. These are “county lines” and they represent a problem in the UK which is only growing.

What are ‘county lines’?

County lines has been defined by the National Crime Agency as “a term used when drug gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers and exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs”. In other words – children are groomed by criminals to work selling drugs across the country in order to avoid the detection of law enforcement. Various sources have indicated that whilst 14-17 year-olds are the most likely targets, these children can be primary school aged, even as young as seven, and that this issue is not only growing, but efforts to combat it are not succeeding.

How do these children become involved?

As with many types of exploitation, children are often brought in by gangs with false promises – manipulated by the promise of money, safety and community. They can even be given highly addictive drugs in order to make them dependent on the gang. Initially they can also be given small jobs such as keeping watch, before being asked to take bigger and bigger roles in the gang’s operation. Once they are in, children are kept in place with threats and violence – scared into staying in line and often trafficked far from home as part of the business.

Are these children not just criminals?

It is critical that we keep sight of the fact that these children are victims who have been deliberately groomed and exploited by criminals. It is easy to look at a child involved in such activity and see a criminal – indeed, many of those who find themselves in this situation do not recognise themselves as victims either. Nonetheless, the Children’s Society has said that the evidence “dispels misconceptions” that this behaviour involves children “who are ‘making a lifestyle choice’” – these are children being groomed, manipulated and abused by those who want to evade detection for their criminal enterprise. The Police’s chief lead on modern slavery has indicated that the term ‘child criminal exploitation’ would be a more appropriate term than ‘county lines’ to better reflect the severity of the issue and the status of the children involved as victims, not perpetrators.

What is being done?

The simplest answer to this question would be ‘not enough’. There are around 2,000 drug supply chains which have been identified by police, so the problem is going to take serious resources to tackle. There is a National County Lines Coordination Centre which is jointly run by the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs’ Council which has £3.6m to improve the police response to this issue and protect victims. The work of police is only half of the battle though – supporting the vulnerable children who are victims of these gangs is essential too. Police forces have indicated that widespread cuts to their funding since 2010 have left them without sufficient resources to effectively deal with county lines and local government cuts have reduced their ability to fund the services which support young people and prevent them being targeted in the first place. Whilst the Modern Slavery Act was a significant achievement in tackling exploitation, it is commonly perceived to put too little focus on victims compared to perpetrators – a more victim-based response would support people to get out of vulnerable situations and prevent the potential for being exposed to exploitation again. It is clear that a significant effort will be required to slow the growth of county lines drug gangs and their exploitation of children, never mind stopping it.