This chapter outlines the main issues involved in the criminal exploitation of adults by organised crime groups.



Modern Slavery

Safeguarding Enquiries Process

Working with Adults affected by Child Sexual Exploitation and Organised Sexual Abuse


County Lines: Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Home Office)

July 2020: Appendix 1: Posters was added with links to Home Office published posters for different sectors.

1. Introduction

The term county lines refers to organised crime gangs / groups who operate in urban areas who supply drugs to suburbs, market and coastal towns; often crossing county borders. The gangs use dedicated mobile phone lines, sometimes known as “deal lines”.  They use adults (and children) to move drugs and money.

Organised crime gangs create a base in their chosen target area, usually by taking over the homes of local adults who gang members have identified as vulnerable (see Section 4, Vulnerability Factors). They do this either by force or coercion (known as ‘cuckooing’ – see Cuckooing chapter).

County lines exploitation is widespread, with gangs from big cities including London, Manchester and Liverpool operating throughout England, Wales and Scotland.

This chapter is a summary of the Home Office County Lines guidance in relation to adults.

2. County Lines Crime Types

The different types of crimes that involve crossing county lines include:

  • drug use and supply;
  • violence;
  • gang activity;
  • safeguarding offences;
  • criminal and sexual exploitation;
  • modern slavery;
  • and missing persons.

These crimes and the behaviour of the gangs involved, has a ruinous impact on the lives of the adults and local communities who are targeted.

The response to tackle county lines crimes involves a number of partner agencies of the South Tyneside Safeguarding Children and Adults Partnership, including the police, local authorities and voluntary and community sector organisations. It also includes the National Crime Agency and a number of Government departments.

3. Victims

County lines crimes operate similarly to other types of abuse or exploitation. Such crimes can:

  • still be exploitative even if people seem to consent to being involved;
  • involve force and /or enticement and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • be committed by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults.
  • Such crimes usually involve an imbalance of power between the abuser and the abused usually related to:
    • age;
    • gender;
    • cognitive ability;
    • physical strength;
    • status;
    • access to money or other resources.

Just because a person receives something in exchange for their involvement, this does not make them any less of a victim.

County lines exploitation often involves some form of exchange, where the victim is asked / told to carry drugs in return for something they want or need, for example:

  • money;
  • drugs;
  • clothes;
  • other rewards such as status, protection or ‘friendship’ or affection;
  • the prevention of threats by gangs / groups being carried out against the victim’s family or friends.

4. Vulnerability Factors

Vulnerability factors for country lines victims include:

  • previous experience of neglect, physical and / or sexual abuse, either as a child or adult;
  • unsafe or unstable home or homelessness now or in the past (this may be due to domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality);
  • social isolation or difficulties in forming friendships or relationships;
  • no / lack of stable or regular income;
  • connections with gang / group members;
  • physical or learning disabilities;
  • mental health or substance misuse issues – Class A drug users are often targeted as their lifestyles leave them vulnerable to exploitation, particularly in relation to gangs taking over their accommodation (see Cuckooing chapter);
  • history of being in care (particularly those in residential care or with an unsettled care history).

5. Risk Indicators

The following are indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation. Whilst the guidance references these in relation to young people, they also apply to adults who are targeted:

  • missing from home / college or work and being found in another town / city / county;
  • unexplained possession of money, clothes, or mobile phone etc;
  • receiving an excessive number of texts or phone calls
  • involvement with controlling individuals or gangs / groups;
  • leaving home without saying where they are going;
  • concerns that they have been physically assaulted / have unexplained injuries;
  • concerns about them expressed by parents / carers / family / friends;
  • known or suspected of carrying weapons;
  • significant decline in education or work results / performance;
  • associating with group / gang members or isolating themselves from their previous friends or social groups;
  • self-harming and / or significant changes in their psychological wellbeing.

Any sudden changes in an adult’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.

6. Taking Action

6.1 Adult with Care and Support Needs

If you believe an adult is being forced to participate in County Lines activity, a safeguarding referral should be made (see Safeguarding Enquiries Process section).

If the adult consents, a referral should also be made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) so they can receive appropriate support. Only a designated First Responder can make a referral to the NRM.  First responder organisations include the police and local authorities.

If the adult does not give their consent to a referral to the NRM, there is still a duty to notify the Home Office of potential victims using an online form.

6.2 Adults without Needs for Care and Support

If you believe an adult is being forced to participate in County Lines activity but they do not have needs for care and support this is still a crime and you should report this to the police (see Local Contacts).

Appendix 1: County Lines Posters

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