What is County Lines?
As a follower of Black Box Research and Consultancy, it is likely that you have encountered the term “County Lines” frequently in our online content. It is important to consider the implications of this phenomenon on children and young people who may be at risk of exploitation.
In the UK, the term County Lines refers to a form of modern slavery in which children and vulnerable adults are exploited and forced to transport drugs and other illicit items to towns, cities or rural areas that are typically outside of their home region.
Perpetrators of County Lines often target children and vulnerable adults using tactics such as grooming and manipulation to coerce them into participation. It is a disturbing reality that exploiters often seek out individuals who are less likely to be detected by law enforcement for involvement in drug-related crime.
In our work, we have come across cases involving children as young as seven years old. However, this form of exploitation often sees vulnerable adults targeted and exploited as well. These individuals mostly include:
- Care leavers
- Class A drug users
- People with learning disabilities and mental health problems
- People in financially precarious situations
- Foreign nationals
In some cases of County Lines, a vulnerable adult’s home can be taken over by criminals. This is known as “cuckooing.” It happens when perpetrators befriend or take advantage of someone living in an area where drugs are being sold. They use deception, pressure, manipulation or even force to turn that person’s home into a property used in the storage, packaging or sale of illicit drugs.
Although anyone can become a target of cuckooing, there are certain groups who are more commonly affected. These include individuals who have a dependency on Class A drugs, people who owe money to drug dealers, those facing financial difficulties and individuals with mental health issues or learning disabilities. These vulnerable individuals are often targeted by criminals seeking to exploit their circumstances.
Children who are coerced and forced into County Lines networks are frequently compelled to sleep in homes that have been taken over through cuckooing. This places them in significant danger, both physically and mentally. These children become more vulnerable to experiencing violence (from perpetrators, residents and rivals), which can lead to various health problems. Additionally, they may be exposed to hazardous substances as a result of the use of Class A drugs within these properties. It is crucial to address these risks and protect these young individuals from such harmful environments.
Examples of Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines
County Lines is a major form of child exploitation in the UK. Drug supply networks traditionally recruit children from major cities such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester for the purposes of trafficking/transporting them to more rural areas (seaside towns, the countryside, etc.) and in order to force their labour in the packaging, distribution and sale of illicit drugs.
The effects on these involved can be devastating, depriving children of their childhood and education, subjecting them to poor living conditions, extreme control, violence and trauma.
Children who are involved in criminal activities through County Lines drug supply are often viewed as willing participants by those in the Criminal Justice System. This stigma makes it difficult for them to exit situations of exploitation and come forward about their experiences.
No matter their background, children and vulnerable adults may be at risk of being groomed into County Lines. This is why it’s crucial for our experts to educate individuals and professionals about this crime.
Examples of a Grooming Line
Exploiters utilise a methodical approach to ensure that the recruitment of children and vulnerable adults continues. According to research, exploitation often begins with the targeting stage, during which perpetrators may seek out children who are already using drugs or those with experience of poverty who lack financial resources.
The gift-giving stage involves perpetrators offering children something for free, such as a meal, clothing, small quantities of cash, drugs or a “safe home”. This is done in an effort to make the child feel like they are part of a family or to provide them with a support network they may not have otherwise had.
The next phase of the exploitation process involves the development of relationships with the child. Perpetrators will work to build a friendship in order to gain a child’s trust. They may offer them a place to stay or share secrets to make them feel empowered and trusted, and to foster a sense of belonging and protection.
Through the use of these techniques, perpetrators can distance or completely isolate children and vulnerable adults from their friends and families, paving the way for the abusive stage of the exploitation process. During this stage, perpetrators may ask the child to deliver, move or store illicit drugs and a failure to comply will often lead to serious consequences such as physical violence and/or psychological abuse, such as threats to themselves, their friends or their families. These methods serve to further entrench the child or vulnerable adult in the exploitation cycle.
At this point, the child may feel as if they have little choice but to participate in criminality. It is our duty at Black Box to help others recognise and understand the signs of exploitation in their community.
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