The growing crisis of child criminal exploitation: who really is at risk?

Case Study 1 (Suffolk Police): A 16 year old male had been reported as missing from London and was considered at risk due to his age and link to gangs. He had recently failed to appear at court for his alleged involvement in a stabbing. He was found in possession of a 6-inch kitchen knife and 30 wraps of drugs. Whilst in custody he was found to have significant burns to his body, on his stomach area, consistent with having been burnt by boiling liquid. He would not disclose further details; however it was suspected this may have been caused by those responsible for placing him in Ipswich to deal in class A drugs.’

‘Case study 2 (South Wales Police): At least one vulnerable female has been used by a gang from London to sexually service its members and has been subjected to sexual violence. As a result of drugs debts they attempted to kidnap her at least twice and it is believed that they have also trafficked her to London in order to pay off a debt through prostitution.’

‘Case study 3 (Eastern Region Special Operations Unit) The [county lines] group were consuming and selling drugs from within the property and prevented the [homeowner] from leaving the address or going to the toilet areas.’

‘Case study 4 (Humberside Police) A male’s hand was severed and both legs broken. The victim is believed to be part of a county lines network with the offenders being a local drug line. It’s suggested to be a punishment attack by the persons the victim was running drugs for, for having used drugs/spent proceeds himself.’

Source: Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines 2020)

What is Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) and County Lines?

‘Child criminal exploitation…occurs 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.’ Home Office 2018

County Lines is just one aspect of CCE. It’s a term used to describe gangs involved in exporting illegal drugs within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. Criminal networks are likely to exploit children to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons. Other names for County Lines abuse include ‘running a line’, ‘going OT/out there’, ‘going country’ or ‘going cunch’.

Children can be targeted and recruited in a number of locations including schools (mainstream and special), further and higher educational institutions, pupil referral units, children’s homes and care homes, and near to bus or railway stations – and online. They can easily become trapped by this type of exploitation as gangs can manufacture drug debts which need to be worked off or threaten serious violence and kidnap towards victims (and their families) if they attempt to leave the county lines network. The criminal exploitation may be in exchange for something the victim needs or wants (for example, money, gifts or affection), and/or will be to the financial benefit or other advantage, such as increased status, of the perpetrator. Children can be exploited by adult males or females, as individuals or in groups. They may also be exploited by other children, who themselves may be experiencing exploitation – where this is the case, it is important that the child perpetrator is also recognised as a victim.

Why learn about CCE?

CCE is one of the fastest rising forms of child abuse affecting children right now. In 2019, the children’s commissioner published research which found that there were around 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation who had not been identified by services. She said: “The dire consequences of criminal exploitation and serious violence on children are clear to see – the regular toll on young lives is played out across our newspapers and TV news bulletins with depressing regularity. The grim library of serious case reviews lay bare the stories of children who have come to harm, or even lost their lives.’

In 2020, 47% of all cases of modern slavery reported to the Home Office concerned children, and 10% of all calls to the Modern Slavery Helpline were from parents with concerns about their children being caught up in CCE – both figures an increase on 2019 figures. Research indicates that children are being increasingly targeted by gangs whose supply lines were closed down by the pandemic in recent years.

As the statutory guidance makes clear to schools and other registered settings:

‘All staff should be aware of indicators of abuse and neglect. Knowing what to look for is vital for the early identification of abuse and neglect (see paragraphs 26-30), and specific safeguarding issues such as child criminal exploitation … so that staff are able to identify cases of children who may be in need of help or protection.’ Keeping Children Safe in Education, 2021 Paragraph 20

What are the risks associated with CCE?

Perpetrators can threaten victims (and their families) with violence or entrap and coerce them into debt. They may be coerced into carrying weapons such as knives or begin to carry a knife for a sense of protection from harm from others. They can be physically and sexually abused, exploited, and trafficked, and assaulted, wounded, tortured or murdered. It is important to note that the experience of girls who are criminally exploited can be very different to that of boys, and can often overlap with sexual exploitation. As children involved in criminal exploitation often commit crimes themselves, their vulnerability as victims is not always recognised by adults and professionals (particularly older children), and they are not treated as victims, despite the harm they have experienced. Recent research has revealed that services across the country do not offer a consistent service to protect and support victims of CCE.

Who is at risk of CCE?

Whilst the age of the child may be the basis for an imbalance of power, there are a range of other factors that could make a child more vulnerable to exploitation, including: sexual identity, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic resources. Children as young as 12 years old, or even younger, are being criminally exploited, but 15-16 years is the most common age range. Both males and females are vulnerable to being exploited, but there is evidence that girls, white British children or those from affluent backgrounds are being increasingly targeted, because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection. We do know that County Lines exploitation is widespread, with criminal networks based in big cities like London and Bristol operating across the UK. Some of the typical risk factors that heighten children’s vulnerability to CCE include:

  • having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example)
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • economic vulnerability
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • connections with other people involved in gangs
  • having a physical or learning disability
  • having mental health or substance misuse issues
  • being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories)
  • being excluded from mainstream education, in particular attending a Pupil Referral Unit

In 2019 the government created the Child Safeguarding Review Panel, an independent body that would commission national reviews on specific child safeguarding events or themes. In the past, local authorities had carried out localized serious case reviews, but there was no statutory mechanism to share any learning for professionals outside the immediate geographical area covered by that review. A centralised Review Panel was intended to address that. The first ever meta-analysis produced by the Panel was published in September 2020 entitled ‘It was hard to escape’ – and it focussed on the theme of CCE. This choice of focus was not insignificant – tackling CCE has suffered from the historical lack of a coordinated and consistent response and systematic data collection from agencies across the country, while the incidence and risks to children of CCE have grown exponentially. The report described the experiences of 21 children from 17 local areas who had all died or experienced serious harm from CCE between July 2018 and March 2019. It provided valuable data on the stark reality of CCE, and in particular which children really were at risk, beyond any generalisations we might hold of ‘typically’ vulnerable children.

In the report, 19 of the 21 children lived at home, all were male, most were Black and most lived with their families (with working and non-working parents). They lived in a range of areas, not just those with high levels of disadvantage, but most were being supported at a Child in Need level. Most had their first contact with agencies from going missing from home or due to criminality (being found with drugs or a knife) – and the most frequently used weapon was a knife. Poignantly, the report said, “Most of the children were characterised by practitioners as bright, respectful and polite.” The report stated, however, that there was one factor above all else that put some children at very real risk of CCC – and that was permanent exclusion. It concluded that: ‘Permanent exclusion from mainstream education has been identified as a critical event that can lead to young people becoming vulnerable to criminal exploitation.’ Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, ‘It was hard to escape’ 2020

How can we spot children at risk of CCE?

Some of the following can be indicators of both child criminal and sexual exploitation where children:

  • appear with unexplained gifts, money or new possessions;
  • associate with other children involved in exploitation;
  • suffer from changes in emotional well-being;
  • misuse drugs and alcohol;
  • go missing for periods of time or regularly come home late; and
  • regularly miss school or education or do not take part in education.

Some additional specific indicators that may be present in CSE are children who:

  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends;
  • suffer from sexually transmitted infections, display sexual behaviours beyond expected sexual development or become pregnant;
  • go missing and are subsequently found in areas away from their home;
  • have been the victim or perpetrator of serious violence (e.g. knife crime);
  • are involved in receiving requests for drugs via a phone line, moving drugs, handing over and collecting money for drugs;
  • are exposed to techniques such as ‘plugging’, where drugs are concealed internally to avoid detection;
  • are found in accommodation that they have no connection with, often called a ‘trap house or cuckooing’ or hotel room where there is drug activity;
  • owe a ‘debt bond’ to their exploiters; and
  • may have their bank accounts used to facilitate drug dealing.

Useful resources

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines Updated February 2020 Succinct and recently updated guidance from the Home Office

‘It was hard to escape’: Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel Oct 2020: this important document provides detailed analysis as to why and how CCE is talking place across the UK, and what works best in terms of interventions. Absolutely vital reading on the subject.

Keeping Bristol Safe Partnership: (4) KBSP Webinar: Child Criminal Exploitation Briefing ”It was hard to escape” – YouTube Nov 2020 Excellent and timely webinar on CCE and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel report from the previous month which explains the findings of the Practice Review Panel report on CCE in an accessible way.

Protecting children from county lines | NSPCC Learning: The NSPCC website has useful information on County Lines and how to practically protect children from this form of abuse.

Unseen are a Bristol based anti-trafficking charity. This year they highlighted research that showed that a third of parents (34%) would not feel confident spotting the signs if their child was being used for County Lines, and 38% of parents would not know what to do if their/a child had become involved in County Lines. They have therefore launched a new campaign aims to raise awareness of County Lines among adults and encourage them to get advice from the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline 08000 121 700.

County Lines exploitation: applying All Our Health February 2021: Public Health England has published guidance to help health professionals prevent child exploitation and protect vulnerable children that have been manipulated and coerced into crime. This guide is part of ‘All Our Health’, a resource which helps health professionals prevent ill health and promote wellbeing as part of their everyday practice.

I now offer a three hour online course on child criminal exploitation to satisfy the demand from professionals wanting to learn more about the growing risk of child criminal exploitation. If you would like to find out more about my safeguarding children training, please check out my website and latest brochure. And if you have a need for a safeguarding course that doesn’t appear in that brochure, please do consider commissioning me to write one for you. I’d be pleased to talk through your training needs with you. Some of my best courses were written at the request of my clients.