County lines refers to a model used by criminal gangs, whereby urban gangs supply drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns.

County lines is 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.

Some vulnerable adults and older children have their homes taken over by the gangs (cuckooing) using force or coercion. They may be forced to store, manufacture and deal drugs from this home, allowing members of the gang to use their property to do the same.

How many children are affected by 'county lines'?

No one really knows how many children across the country are being forced to take part, but The Children's Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity. It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation, or 'county lines'.

Tragically the children exploited through 'county lines' can often be seen by professionals as criminals.

However, we want these vulnerable children to be recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation. We want them to receive the support they need to deal with the trauma they have been through.

How are children being exploited?

Gangs are deliberately targeting vulnerable children – those who are homeless, living in care homes or trapped in poverty. These children are unsafe, unloved, or unable to cope, and the gangs take advantage of this.

These gangs groom, threaten or trick children into trafficking their drugs for them. They might threaten a child physically, or they might threaten the child's family members. The gangs might also offer something in return for the child's cooperation – it could be money, food, alcohol, clothes and jewellery, or improved status – but the giving of these gifts will usually be manipulated so that the child feels they are in debt to their exploiter.

However they become trapped in county lines, the children involved feel as if they have no choice but to continue doing what the gangs want.

What are the signs of criminal exploitation and county lines?

  • Returning home late, staying out all night or going missing
  • Being found in areas away from home
  • Increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
  • Being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
  • Unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
  • Unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewellery
  • Increasingly disruptive or aggressive behaviour
  • Using sexual, drug-related or violent language you wouldn't expect them to know
  • Coming home with injuries or looking particularly dishevelled
  • Having hotel cards or keys to unknown places.

The language of exploitation

It is imperative that appropriate terminology is used when discussing children who have been exploited, or are at risk of exploitation. Language implying that the child is complicit in any way, or responsible for the crimes that have happened or may happen to them, must be avoided.

Language should reflect the presence of coercion and the lack of control have in abusive or exploitative situations, and must recognise the severity of the impact exploitation has on the child.

Victim-blaming language may reinforce messages from perpetrators around shame and guilt. This in turn may prevent the child from disclosing their abuse, through fear of being blamed by professionals. When victim-blaming language is used amongst professionals, there is a risk of normalising and minimising the child's experience, resulting in a lack of appropriate response.

View guidance for professionals regarding appropriate language.

Understanding commonly used terms

County line County lines is a term used to describe a model of drug dealing. This model allows the reach of drug dealers to be lengthened increasing the market. It centres around a telephone line, the number of which is well advertised
Cuckooing Gangs mainly based in cities will establish a rural base from which to deal drugs, the base is often cuckooed where by a potentially vulnerable person is coerced into allowing them to use the premises by promises of payments, in money, gifts or drugs or via force.
Trap house

The name given to the house which has been cuckoo'd for the purposes of county lines drug dealing.

Debt bondage

Often children are groomed into the gangs in the first instance by gang members preying on their vulnerabilities and using pull factors such as gifts, drugs, the opportunity to be part of something. Then a common way of ensuring that they will work for the gang its to falsely manufacturing a debt. They are "trusted" to deliver a package; on arrival at the location specified to drop off the package they are robbed. This is usually by members of the gang, and then they are told that they owe the value of the "stolen" drugs. They are then forced to work off the debt, often with interest.

Clean housing

This is a highly organised criminal activity and often the main gang members have separate homes, one to operate the business from, one to keep it entirely separate from their family and children  - this is called the clean house.

Clean skin

Another term associated with child criminal exploitation, this is the use of children who have not previously been known to the police, therefore fingers prints aren't recognised, they are not under any kind of surveillance or scrutiny. This term is used in a wider context for seemingly respectable adults who have jobs, are in no trouble with the police, etc who are involved in drug dealing and associated crime.


Currently to move a child from their normal place of residence to a trap house is considered to be a trafficking offence. "Moving a person from one place to another for the purposes of gain".  All children exploited in this way in our local area are reported via the national referral mechanism as having been trafficked, if this is accepted then this means that under the Modern Slavery Act they are not prosecuted for crimes that they committed while trafficked –ensuring that they are not criminalised. 

​Useful websites ​

Home office guidance - criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance ​

​Programme Challenger , Greater Manchester and Cheshire Partnership

You Tube link ​

Trust's 7 minute briefing ​
Shine a Light report 2013 ​