County lines: Safeguarding alert as cases rise sharply

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A county lines safeguarding alert has been issued to schools after a worrying spike in referrals nationally.


Home Office figures for the April to June period show that referrals to the National Referral Mechanism – the system for identifying victims of modern slavery – more than doubled from 199 to 409. Of these, 346 (85 per cent) were for children.

The period coincided with the Covid-19 lockdown and it is feared that many criminal gangs adapted their methods and took advantage of vulnerable children who were out of view of teachers, social workers and youth workers.

County lines refers to the use of children and vulnerable adults by individuals or gangs to transport and sell Class A drugs – mainly from urban areas into market or coastal towns. Children are also used to transport and hide weapons.

A report last year from the National Crime Agency (NCA, 2019; SecEd, 2019) warned that the high profits being made by criminals means that their methods are constantly changing to “minimise risks” and core to this is the exploitation of young people and vulnerable adults.

The NCA said that offenders often approach victims before the age of 11 in order to build a relationship and trust – making county lines a safeguarding issue for both primary and secondary schools. The grooming techniques are similar to those we see in cases of sexual exploitation.

Responding to the recent Home Office figures, Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said that the charity had seen evidence of how criminals continued to “cynically groom and exploit vulnerable children to traffic drugs” during the Covid-19 lockdown.

She told SecEd: “They adapted their methods where necessary and took advantage of a situation in which many children were out of view of teachers, social workers and youth workers – meaning that even these shocking figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. Our research has also found that awareness of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) among professionals is patchy.”

The NRM is an online process via which professionals can refer potential victims of modern slavery for support. Home Office guidance (2020) states: “If the potential victim is under 18, or may be under 18, an NRM referral must be made. Child victims do not have to consent to be referred into the NRM and must first be safeguarded and then referred into the NRM process.”

Writing in SecEd earlier this year (2020), virtual school headteacher Darren Martindale offered his advice to schools on supporting pupils at risk of county lines and other criminal activity – warning that exclusion was a major factor in increasing pupils’ vulnerability. He wrote: “Many (though not all) young offenders come from very difficult backgrounds. However, children who are coerced into this world become particularly vulnerable and educators have a pivotal role in protecting them. These children are often looking for someone to run to – and they run the wrong way.”

He described the dangers victims face: “There is an insidious process of luring children into these gangs. At first, they might be invited to undertake a bit of ‘work’ for what seems a harmless reward, e.g. food, gifts, money or accommodation. Class B drugs (e.g. cannabis) are often also supplied to the child as a hook.

“Brainwashing and coercion through violence usually follow, until the young person is completely isolated and controlled through intimidation. These gangs are characterised by more extreme levels of violence than local gangs. Their victims have stumbled into a world where shootings, stabbings, the breaking and severing of limbs and other horrendous forms of violence are not uncommon.”

The NCA report estimated that around 2,000 county lines existed (at the time of its writing in February 2019) and that children aged from 15 to 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved.

Victims have common risk factors, the NCA states, including poverty, family breakdown/intervention by social services, looked after status, frequent missing episodes, behavioural and developmental disorders, and exclusion from mainstream schooling.

Children from “seemingly stable backgrounds” are also targeted by offenders, who exploit vulnerabilities such as difficulties with parents and peer groups.

Back at The Children’s Society, meanwhile, a campaign is underway to urge government to launch a national strategy to tackle child criminal exploitation, define it in law and “help end the postcode lottery when it comes to identifying children at risk of exploitation and offering support early”.

Ms Pona continued: “Even when children are assessed to be victims of child criminal exploitation, the support they receive remains inconsistent and often insufficient and too many children are not identified until exploitation is deeply engrained in their lives.

“It’s vital that all vulnerable children who are not yet in school, or in the event of future school closures, have access to a named trusted professional who can help ensure they are getting the support they need and identify any risks they may be facing.”

  • Home Office: Official Statistics: Modern Slavery: National referral mechanism and duty to notify statistics UK, quarter 2 2020 – April to June, September 2020: https://bit.ly/3cn2kfj
  • Home Office: National referral mechanism guidance: adult (England and Wales), last updated January 2020: https://bit.ly/3cq2a6J
  • Martindale: County lines: A world of violence, intimidation and crime, SecEd, March 2020: https://bit.ly/2X3dXSC
  • NCA: County lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm 2018, January 2019: https://bit.ly/3cnWTwv
  • SecEd: Drug gangs groom young children to run county lines, February 2019: https://bit.ly/35W6IAN


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