County lines: How much do you know?

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County lines is becoming an increasing problem within the UK and vulnerable children, including fostered children, are being exploited across towns and cities. Here you can read more about it.

County lines is a term used when drug gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers. Heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, MDMA, cannabis and amphetamines are the most common drugs being supplied to users who will often live in a different area to where the dealers and networks are based, so drug runners are recruited to transport the drugs and collect payment.
Gangs recruit and use children and young people via social media usually between the ages of 14-17 to move drugs and money for them, however children as young as eight have been involved. Anecdotal evidence suggests children are often targeted because they are less likely to be known to police and more likely to receive lenient sentences if caught. These young people are exploited and forced to carry drugs between urban locations, usually on trains or coaches after which they are forced to sell drugs to local users. County lines groups tend to use younger members to identify and target other children, either through personal or social media links. 

Gangs intimidate and manipulate the children and young people they recruit. They often use violence and weapons such as firearms, knives, bats and acid to threaten individuals during recruitment, and also violently assault those “working” for them if they find their drugs or money to be missing.

Further infiltration can happen as a result of drug debts, which are often inflated or staged in order to coerce young people into further county lines activities. An example of this is when gang leaders use other gang members to mug the new recruits and take the money or drugs they were carrying ensuring the young people are then “in debt” to the gang for “losing” these items. 

Groups will sometimes threaten family members of new recruits, using violence and intimidation to ensure engagement and cooperation with the network. 

It is worth noting children often don’t see themselves as victims or realise that they have been groomed to get involved in criminal activity. Therefore it is vitally important to be vigilant and able to spot the signs and seek support if you feel someone you know may be involved. Read some of the signs

Many of the children used are selected because they are seen as vulnerable in some way – such as having poor mental health, having experienced chaotic or traumatic lives, being homeless or being drug users. The National Crime Agency’s 2018 publication  mentions that looked after children can be more vulnerable to being targeted, explaining that it is likely that children displaying such vulnerabilities are attracted by the sense of belonging, inclusion and structure offered by participation in an offending group. 

If you are a foster carer or work with fostered children and young people, it is important to be vigilant and be able to spot the signs of county lines activity and criminal exploitation. It is also vital to communicate with the children and young people and be open-minded and non-judgmental in these interactions. If you are concerned that someone you know is involved in county lines, don’t hesitate to seek support.

For more information on county lines and where you can go for support, please visit