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County Lines Gangs - risks

County Lines gangs – risks, signs and safeguarding

County Lines are in the news but just what are they and how can safeguarding measures and training help victims and keep children safe from harm?

These headlines give you an idea of the threat posed by County Lines gangs:

“County lines gangs: how drug-running is fuelling knife crime” (The Guardian)

“County lines drug dealer ordered to pay back £94k” (BBC)

“School exclusions for drugs and alcohol at ten-year high as ‘county lines’ gangs are blamed” (The Telegraph)

“More than 600 arrested in week of action on county lines gangs” (NPCC)


We see a lot of shocking statistics about County Lines, but what exactly does County Lines mean?

Do we really know what county lines means? It’s when criminal networks and gangs exploit children, young people and vulnerable adults so that they can move their business from big cities to smaller towns, coastal and rural areas to make more money.

A county line is where a gang establishes and operates a telephone number in an area outside of their normal locality to sell drugs (usually Class A drugs) directly to drug users, sell weapons and sexually exploit others.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) highlights the scale of the crimes which are destroying lives and communities involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, modern slavery and trafficking, grooming, criminal and sexual exploitation and missing persons. Profits from the county lines trade nationwide are estimated at about £500m.

Mobile phones and social media are used to recruit, track, coerce and control children, young people and vulnerable adults into county lines gangs.

The victims move around drugs and money for criminal gangs. They need a base to stay, so take over the home of a vulnerable person. This is known as ‘cuckooing’. The vulnerable person may have a mental or physical illness, be a drug addict, a single mother or sex worker or promised free drugs in exchange for use of their house. The vulnerable person may also be sexually and physically abused throughout this process. Some even leave their home, becoming voluntarily homeless and leaving the gang to use their home. Others may be imprisoned in or not allowed back home.

In some areas there are local ‘hubs’ recruiting local children to distribute drugs.

Who is at risk?

Certain children, young people and adults are vulnerable and more at risk of being drawn into county lines, such as…

  • Looked after children
  • Children not known to services
  • Missing children
  • Vulnerable adults
  • Others may be threatened with violence or by exploiting their addiction to drugs.

This is big business for those running the ‘supply chain’ so they go to great lengths to make sure it’s incredibly hard to leave. Those trying to escape county lines operations may be tortured and their families threatened with violence.

Why is it important?

County lines have contributed to putting a large amount of drugs and weapons on the streets. Fatal stabbings have increased due to county lines, contributing to the highest levels since records began.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned county lines gangs are “devastating communities across the length and breadth of the UK”.

Key facts – the most common drugs involved are heroin and cocaine (crack and powder), as well as MDMA, cannabis, amphetamines and spice.

In March 2019, The Guardian reported:

  • 15-16 is the optimum age for recruiting children to work in county lines
  • 66% Increase in trafficked children, boosted by drug gang activity
  • £5,000 – the amount a gang can earn in a day from a county line
  • About 21% of cases involve vulnerable adults trafficked or exploited into the county lines trade and 17% of cases involve “cuckooing, (NCA).


Safeguarding and prevention is key to detecting victims and at-risk children, young people and vulnerable adults. Through understanding the problem, being aware of statutory responsibilities and being confident about the issues to help to reduce the impact of county lines criminal exploitation. You may be the only chance the victim has of being safeguarded so you need to know how to take action.

How can e-learning help to change practice?

The County Lines e-learning can help professionals who work with children, young people and vulnerable adults – whether they work in housing, health, social care, education, police or the public sector – to understand the issues, gain confidence, recognise the indicators and signs to look out for and what to do if they suspect county lines activity or if someone is at risk.

How do our courses help people to change their practice?

Adult learners prefer to use knowledge and skills that are personally applicable in their specific role.  E-learning supports learners in building their knowledge and using it to develop their own practice. There are interactive explanations, questions and case studies to make the courses interesting and enjoyable. Using video clips helps to illustrate important points too. Relevant Learning Pool courses available now:

  • Safeguarding Children: Level 1 and Level 2 – are available in the Children’s Social Care Catalogue.
  • Care Certificate courses – Standard 11: Safeguarding Children and Standard 10: Safeguarding Adults.
  • Learning Pool is a Skills for Care endorsed provider for these courses.
  • Child Sexual Exploitation – is available in the Children’s Social Care Catalogue.
  • Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking – is available in Housing, Care, Public Sector and Health.
  • Safeguarding Adults – courses are available in Housing, Care, Public Sector and Health catalogues.
  • Safeguarding Adults Level 1 and Level 2 courses are available in Care and Health catalogues.

Coming soon:

  • County Lines – the e-learning looks at what county lines mean, what criminal exploitation is, who is at risk, recruitment, grooming, what to look for, why people join gangs, indicators and common signs, the law, safeguarding and what you can do.
  • Safeguarding Children Level 3

Safeguarding against County Lines

Learning Pool’s e-learning Safeguarding programs and courses can be used to raise awareness of combat the threat posed to children from County Lines gangs and help keep children protected and safe

About the author

Avril Howarth is our Subject Matter Expert across all of our health and social care content. She holds a Doctorate in quality in education and learning and held a national role for the Department of Health and Department of Children Schools and Families for over 3 years, setting up and leading a National Support Team.

Jill Thorburn is our Subject Matter Expert across all of our social care content. With over 25 years’ experience of adults’ and children’s social work services, Jill has carried out extensive work within social work management including, safeguarding adults, management in every area of children’s services.

To learn about our safeguarding modules, view our Public Sector, Health, Social Care and Compliance catalogues

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