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Criminal Exploitation


Criminal exploitation includes county lines but also includes children coerced or manipulated into criminal activity. Initial contact can be made via social media and victims can be groomed similarly to sexual exploitation. Young people can be criminally exploited by an adult or a peer. The relationship is an unequal power imbalance that involves an exchange for tangible rewards (money, drugs or clothes etc.) or intangible rewards (status, protection or perceived friendship). 15-16 years is the most common age range for young people being criminally exploited but this can include young children, this can also affect males and females. Children who are not in regular school or are missing from education are considered to be at increased risk of criminal exploitation.


Children are often groomed or tricked into criminal activity before they realise the dangers.  Children can carry drugs in harmful ways, such as ‘plugging’ (drugs inserted into their rectum or vagina). This is one example of how criminal and sexual exploitation can overlap. Another example is the use of sexual violence which is used as punishment. 




‘Child Criminal Exploitation is common in county lines* and 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 years. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation doesn’t always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.’ (Home Office, 2018)


‘County lines 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. (Home Office, 2018)



88% of police forces report county lines activity in their areas with approximately 1,500 county lines nationally.  ‘County Lines’ are when individuals or gangs use children to transport and sell drugs, primarily from urban areas into market or coastal towns or rural areas to establish new drug markets or take over existing ones. They also use children to transport and hide weapons and to secure dwellings of vulnerable people in the area, so that they can use them as a base from which to sell drugs (‘cuckooing’).  County Lines involves modern slavery and trafficking as well as exploitation as the adults running the network are removed from the frontline activity of dealing and instead use children.  Violence and intimidation are a common feature of County Lines.  Increases in knife crime and youth violence can often be an indicator of a county line in a local area. A young person’s family could be threatened as a means of propelling them to ‘work’ for the drug network.


Working with young people criminally exploited


It is important to adopt a welfare approach - children who are criminally exploited are victims of crime and require a multi-agency system that understands their behaviour in the context of trauma, PTSD, mental health vulnerabilities and substance misuse.  This will help build trusting and stable relationships between young people and professionals which is essential to effectively safeguard them from this harm.


For many young people who have been criminally exploited, there are ‘reachable moments’, circumstances when a child is more likely to take up offers of support.  These include being arrested or seriously wounded.  Professionals should capitalise on these moments to effectively safeguard the young person. 


In Essex, since July 2019 the Violence & Vulnerability Unit has funded two youth workers to engage with young people attending Basildon A&E with serious wounds in an attempt to reach out to criminally exploited young people The pilot project reports that 73% of young people sign up for further support following discharge from hospital.   


However, it is important to remember that all young people are ‘reachable’ at any stage of exploitation so we should not not wait for moments when they are more reachable. 


See the section on engaging with young people under Sexual Exploitation for key messages from young people about ways we can positively connect with them.  Messages such as focusing on their strengths and resilience rather than the risks and problems they face can reframe your relationship with them and build connections.