A record number of children have fallen victim to criminal exploitation according to recent Home Office figures. A fundamental reason for this worrying increase is the rise of County Lines crime.
According to the latest data, 1,630 children (813 British and 817 foreign nationals including a high proportion of Albanians and Eritreans) were suspected to be victims of exploitation between April and June 2022. This is a 20% increase on the previous quarter which has prompted the government and other authorities to call on people to be more vigilant in spotting the signs that a child could be being exploited.
Children aged from 15 to 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved. However, gangs are now approaching victims as young as 10 and 11 employing similar techniques to those used in in cases of sexual exploitation.
In their accompanying analysis the Home Office stated:
“Throughout 2020, a rapid increase in the identification of ‘county lines’ cases partially drove the increase in referrals for children within the criminal exploitation category. In 2021, cases flagged as county lines remained at this high level, averaging over 500 referrals a quarter.”
What is County Lines crime?
County Lines is where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries.
Offences are committed by children or other vulnerable groups – those with mental health problems and/or addiction issues – coerced by organised criminals involved in exporting illegal drugs. The term ‘County Line’ refers to the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs.
Not only is County Lines crime causing serious damage to the people involved, but it is also causing violence and weapons-related crimes to rise.
However, it is the exploitation of young and vulnerable people that is causing the greatest concern. Gangs force them to deal, run drugs between different areas or move or hide money so they stay under the radar of law enforcement.
Those exploited are often trafficked to areas a long way from their homes to participate in a gang’s drug dealing network. Despite being subjected to serious physical, mental and sexual abuse, many don’t even consider themselves to be victims or recognise they have been groomed and coerced into criminal activity.
In many cases the gang will take over a property owned by a vulnerable adult and run their operations from there. This is known as cuckooing.
How has law enforcement responded to the rise in County Lines crime?
Tackling county lines, and the supply gangs responsible for high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse of vulnerable adults and children, is now a high priority for Law enforcement.
Regional police forces, organised crime units and health, welfare and education authorities have joined forces to step up their response, particularly within the areas of the UK with the most significant problems.
This nationally coordinated effort has developed an overall picture of activity which has allowed them to prioritise their pursuit of the most serious offenders.
How do you know if your area is affected by County Lines drug dealing?
Some of the most common signs of County Lines drug dealing are:
- Large numbers of visitors to a certain house or flat
- Constantly changing residents in a house or flat (often with different regional accents)
- Residents displaying secretive or aggressive behaviour
- Evidence of drug use around a house or flat
- Residents with expensive clothes, jewellery or cars
- Young residents going missing or not being seen for long periods then reappearing
- Young residents arriving or leaving in different cars driven by unknown adults
- Residents obviously unfamiliar with your area
- An increase in anti-social behaviour
- You notice young residents with injuries
If you spot any of these signs in your local area, you should act on your instincts and either call the police or Childline. Even if it is not evidence of county lines crime per se, the youngsters involved may be being exploited in other ways.
If you are involved in a case involving County Lines or any other form of organised crime, please contact us today to arrange an initial conversation with one of our hugely experienced criminal barristers.