Protecting Children and Young People from County Lines
In this blog, Rachael Bishop, founder of RLB Safeguarding Ltd, with over 18 years’ safeguarding experience working with local authorities and corporate bodies, explains measures education settings can put in place to prevent and address involvement in county lines, and protect children and young people from harm.
What are county lines In the context of safeguarding?
The term ‘county lines’ refers to drug dealing and organised criminal groups who use mobile phone lines and social media channels to move and supply drugs from one area to another. Drugs are usually moved across county lines from cities into smaller villages, towns, and other rural areas. Mobile phones are used as a tool to contact children and young people to direct them where and when to deliver drugs and other packages. The term originates from the UK, although similar activities exist in various forms worldwide.
County lines gangs are extremely sophisticated, well connected, and highly organised. Within these criminal networks, gang leaders and members will use a range of grooming techniques, threats, and coercively controlling behaviours to recruit children and young people and exploit them. Children and young people can be targeted because they are less likely to be stopped or suspected by the police.
The 2018 Home Office Serious and Organised Crime Strategy states:
“The NPCC definition of a County Line 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.”
It's important to note that children and young people who are groomed and exploited into county lines may be highly influenced by these adults. They may have strong emotional connections or be extremely controlled. It’s therefore not always easy to steer a person away from this world and it may also cause conflict. Parents and guardians may have little influence over these situations or contexts and may feel unable to reach their children.
How do county lines work?
County lines exist throughout the UK. It’s about the movement of drugs across geographical boundaries, whether they be actual counties or other geographic distinctions.
Dedicated mobile phone lines are commonly referred to as a "deal line", used to facilitate and place orders for drugs from customers in the area.
Coercion and serious violence may occur between competing gangs trying to establish dominance in a particular area. Violence and coercion behaviours will also be used to control the children and young people who are being exploited.
Cuckooing is another important aspect of county lines. Vulnerable adults may also be exploited, with drug dealers sometimes taking over their homes (a practice known as "cuckooing") to use as a base for drug dealing.
Signs of county lines activity
- Being absent or missing from education
- Debt bondage used to control a child or young person/family
- Signs of sexual exploitation and assault or online images/videos of assault from inserting drugs internally
- Decline in academic performance
- Changes in behaviour, such as aggression or low mood
- Nervousness or paranoid behaviour
- Changes in appearance
- Becoming involved with influential or unknown adults
- Possession of weapons
- Becoming involved in gangs
- Unexplained injuries or marks
- Sudden changes in affluence or large quantities of money/new things
- Suspicious phone activity
- Drug and/or alcohol use, including paraphernalia
- Excessive or lone travel between areas, being found far from home/missing or with transport tickets where journeys cannot be explained, or regular use of taxis
- Possession of hotel or key cards
County lines support for parents
Parents and guardians may find dealing with county lines issues extremely challenging. It’s essential for them to:
- remain informed about county lines and some of the terminology and risks
- maintain open communication with their children
- seek support when necessary
Parents and guardians can also access further information from:
- The National Crime Agency
- Local police services
- Children’s social care services
How can schools put steps in place to prevent county lines?
Schools have a fundamental role to play in protecting children and young people from county lines and other forms of criminal exploitation. Professionals in schools are in a prime position to identify the signs and symptoms associated with county lines, to provide support and intervention at the earliest opportunity, and to refer suspected cases of county lines to the appropriate statutory and specialist services. A school’s proactive approach and consistent engagement with students can serve as a significant barrier against this form of criminal activity.
1. Prevention and early identification. School staff have regular contact with their students, and are therefore in a unique position to build trust and relationships where children and young people can speak up if they are concerned or worried about something. Staff may also be able to spot changes in behaviour, appearance, attendance, and academic performance that may indicate county lines abuse or criminal exploitation.
2. Providing a safe space. The school should provide a safe space for students to discuss any concerns with peers or trusted adults. This should always be reinforced within tutorial sessions and safeguarding reporting procedures.
3. Training for staff and colleagues at all levels. Specialist training must be accessed to help staff understand what county lines are, how county lines can affect students, and what to do if they spot signs and symptoms. It’s important that staff have the confidence to identify county lines exploitation indicators, but also to speak to and support children and young people who may be experiencing this form of abuse.
4. Robust safeguarding policies and procedures. The school’s leaders and designated safeguarding leads must ensure that the school’s policy is reflective of county lines and criminal exploitation. They must be explicit, with everyone understanding how to spot county lines activity, but also how to report and record concerns using the school’s safeguarding reporting procedures.
5. Raising awareness with education. Schools also have a duty to educate students around risks and dangers associated with county lines. There are ongoing concerns regarding the cost-of-living crisis and substance misuse issues that can also be contributing factors to a young person becoming involved in county lines or criminal activities for financial gain. Students should be regularly informed about how to protect themselves and their peers from county lines abuse and be able to make more informed decisions when they are with friends, involved with their communities, and online, for example. It’s also important to educate additional stakeholders such as parents and guardians to look out for indicators of county lines and to raise concerns at the earliest opportunity.
6. Effective partnership working. Schools should be collaborating with local statutory services such as the police, local authorities, and specialist services to share information appropriately and to access tailored resources. Prevention is always key, so it’s essential to build relationships with services and be aware of what signposting, support and referral processes are available.
7. Making referrals. When a student is identified as at risk or is involved in county lines, the designated safeguarding lead must be informed so that they can make a referral to the appropriate statutory service, such as social care and the police.
8. Support and intervention. Schools may have in-house counselling and support services available or staff members that have received specialist training regarding working with children who are experiencing or have experienced county lines abuse. Designated safeguarding leads must also be aware of additional specialist support services that can be accessed in the local area.
9. Engaging parents and guardians. The school is also responsible for sharing information and guidance with parents and guardians. By doing so, they can raise awareness around county lines and help empower parents to look out for signs and symptoms to support their own children.
10. Understanding local and wider risks. Sharing information about local and wider county lines and criminal exploitation risks can empower students, their families, and the staff members that are interacting with these students. Protocols which involve working together and informed by practice are much more effective.
The National College offers comprehensive professional development on safeguarding and county lines to help your setting protect children and young people from harm and fulfil statutory safeguarding duties.
If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
St. Giles Trust, ‘New county lines support service will offer lifeline across England and Wales, 2020 - https://www.stgilestrust.org.uk/new-county-lines-support-service-will-offer-lifeline-across-england-and-wales/
National Crime Agency, ‘County Lines’ - https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/what-we-do/crime-threats/drug-trafficking/county-lines
NSPCC, ‘Protecting children from county lines’, 2023 - https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/child-abuse-and-neglect/county-lines
Home Office, ‘County lines: criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults’, 2023 - https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/county-lines-criminal-exploitation-of-children-and-vulnerable-adults
HOM Government, ‘Serious and Organised Crime Strategy’, 2018 - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/752850/SOC-2018-web.pdf