Modern Slavery

Safeguarding Enquiries Process


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

National County Lines Coordination Centre, County Lines Awareness Video – a 10 minute video discussing the county lines methodology and how this is impacting children, young people and vulnerable adults, partners, law enforcement and society.

NHS, County Lines: Coercive Internal Concealment – a rapid read document on internal concealment.

Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Working definition of trauma-informed practice – guidance on trauma-informed practice

College of Policing, Adults at risk – authorised professional practice for policing on adults at risk

Crown Prosecution Service, CPS county lines offending guidance – sets out the approach of the police and the CPS to county lines offending, including the safeguarding of vulnerable persons, and the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.

April 2024: This chapter which provides information on how to spot signs that an adult with care and support needs is being exploited and what action to take if you have concerns, has been updated throughout.

1. Introduction – What is County Lines Exploitation?

County lines is a way of distributing illegal drugs which uses violence and exploitation. It is a form of abuse. It commonly involves children and vulnerable adults, who may have care and support needs, being forced to deliver drugs and money or weapons to drug dealers or drug users, either in the local area or in other counties.

Adults can also be forced to use their homes to store drugs, a practice known as cuckooing or forced home invasion (see Cuckooing chapter). Criminal exploitation has a devastating impact on victims, families and local communities.

The government definition of county lines is:

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 forms 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. (Serious Violence Strategy, Home Office).

This chapter provides guidance for frontline staff so they can recognise the signs of criminal exploitation and know how to respond so that victims get the support and protection they need.

Where concerns relate to the criminal exploitation of a child or young person under 18 years, the Safeguarding Children Partnership procedures should be followed.

2. Forms of Exploitation

County lines exploitation always involves some form of power imbalance which is used by the perpetrators to force, coerce, groom or entice victims into county lines activity. Methods used include:

  • offering an exchange: the victim carries drugs in return for something they need or want such as money, drugs, protection, a sense of belonging or identify, supposed friendship or affection;
  • physical violence or threats of violence: victims and their families are intimidated or punished. Weapons may be used;
  • abduction or kidnapping: victims are forcibly moved and held away from their homes;
  • emotional abuse or psychological coercive control – the victim’s movements are controlled using threats / manipulation;
  • sexual abuse and exploitation – this can be experienced by people of any gender;
  • blackmail – victims are forced to commit a crime so it can be held over them in the future if they do not comply with the exploiters;
  • social media / messaging apps – these can be used to target and communicate with victims, often by building false friendships online or to post fraudulent job adverts;
  • cuckooing / forced home invasion –criminals, usually drug dealers, take over the homes of vulnerable adults, including care leavers or those with addiction, physical or mental health issues. The property becomes the base for the criminal activity. It can be in rented or private properties, student accommodation or commercial premises. See Cuckooing chapter.
  • coerced internal concealment / plugging – victims are forced to conceal drugs or SIM cards internally, so they can be moved without detection by others, especially the police;
  • debt bondage –victims are made to repay money they owe by transporting drugs. Victims are often groomed and provided with money or goods which they then find out they have to pay back;
  • financial exploitation – victims are coerced, manipulated or deceived into moving money obtained through crime.


Vulnerable adults who have been groomed and exploited into county lines have not freely chosen to be involved and cannot consent to being exploited.

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

3. Who is at Risk of Exploitation?

Any vulnerable adult could be a victim of county lines exploitation, as exploiters continually adapt who they target to avoid detection.

Sex / gender – people of all genders can be exploited. Women are often exploited to perform different roles and can experience other forms of harm (such as sexual exploitation).

Ethnicity – people from all ethnicities and nationalities are targeted.

Location – county lines are widespread across the country, in both rural and urban areas. It can involve the movement of drugs across county borders from one area of the UK to another, but also to supply local drugs markets, and operate in the same town, city or county. County lines grooming can take place in a range of settings, including people’s homes, public spaces, schools and universities, prisons and youth offender institutions as well as online.

The risks of exploitation can be higher for particular groups of adults including those:

  • in contact with the criminal justice system, even for minor offences (the arrest of a victim can be an opportunity for the police to identify safety and welfare concerns);
  • who have experienced neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or exploitation, domestic abuse or trauma and who lack a safe or stable home environment. This includes care leavers;
  • who are socially isolated or experiencing social difficulties. The lack of friends or a support network can make it even harder for people to get help;
  • who do not have much money and / or ways of getting money legally (for example, do not find it easy to get jobs) ;
  • who are homeless or have insecure accommodation;
  • with connections to other people in gangs;
  • with a physical or learning disability or who are neurodivergent or experiencing mental health issues. It can be harder for these victims to recognise they are being exploited or to ask for help;
  • with insecure immigration status.

These risk factors do not cause the adult’s exploitation into county lines, but they can create an imbalance of power which exploiters then seek to abuse. However, adults with none of these risk factors and who are not known to services can also be exploited and are referred to as ‘clean skins’ by exploiters.

4. Signs to Look Out For

It is unlikely that a victim will report their own exploitation. This may be because they do not see themselves as victim or feel able to tell anyone that they are being exploited. They are also likely to be scared to ask for help because they are scared of serious repercussions from their exploiters.

However, practitioners who are working with adults are well placed to spot possible signs of county lines exploitation, which include the following.


  • Going missing, being unwilling to say where they have been or being found in areas they have no obvious connections to.
  • Self harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing, behaviour or personality.
  • Isolation from social networks.


  • Suddenly having new clothes, money or mobile phones.
  • Receiving and making lots of phone calls or texts, having multiple phones or SIM cards.
  • Carrying or storing weapons.
  • Using drugs or possessing drugs and drug paraphernalia / equipment.
  • Having train tickets for unusual journeys.
  • Having a bag or rucksack that they won’t put down / leave.


  • Having unexplained injuries, for example cigarette burns.
  • Inappropriate online relationships, or being secretive.

Signs of being made to hide items inside them

  • Refusing food or drink.
  • Possession of lubricants and condoms.
  • Dishevelled appearance / stained clothing.
  • Being physically unwell (victims may require immediate medical help).

Debt bondage / financial exploitation

  • Large or unexplained sums of cash or deposits into bank accounts.
  • Unusual financial transactions.
  • Asking for money / stealing to pay back a debt.

If the practitioner has any concerns about changes in an adult’s behaviour or lifestyle, they should discuss these with them, and record details in the adults record (see Case Recording chapter).

5. Taking Action

Any concerns that a vulnerable adult is at risk of county lines exploitation require a safeguarding response.

If a person is at immediate risk of harm, the police should be contacted by calling 999.

If the person is not at immediate risk of harm, staff should talk to the adult and then concerns should be shared with the local authority adult safeguarding team (see Let’s Talk Team, Local Contacts) and the police. Use professional curiosity to gently ask the adult questions, they are likely to be reluctant to disclose information due to fear of repercussions (see also Professional Curiosity chapter).

This might involve the practitioner contacting the designated lead for safeguarding adults in their own organisation, who will then make a safeguarding adults referral; or, they could contact adult social care directly.

The local authority and partners agencies will then consider whether action is required to protect the adult victim. This may include a discussion about whether the person has care and support needs, if they have mental capacity (see Mental Capacity chapter) and if they do, whether inherent jurisdiction applies in their case. This is when a person with mental capacity is coerced or unduly influenced by another person, which restricts their ability to freely make their own decisions.

The adult should be at the centre of these discussions and any decisions that are taken during the safeguarding or inherent jurisdiction process. See Making Safeguarding Personal chapter.

Local authorities and the police have tools and powers to remove the exploiters and help victims., including applying for closure orders or injunctions on the cuckooed properties. All concerns should be recorded in the adult’s records along with details of all actions that have been taken and decisions that have been made (see Case Recording chapter).

If a practitioner is not satisfied with the local authority response to their concerns, the Escalation and Challenge Protocol should be followed.

5.1 Modern slavery and the National Referral Mechanism

Criminal exploitation is a form of modern slavery. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) provides a framework for identifying and referring potential modern slavery victims and ensuring they receive appropriate support.  First responder organisations, which includes the local authority and the police (see Modern Slavery chapter, appendix 1), should refer adult victims of modern slavery to the NRM if they give their consent to this.  Even if the adult does not consent to the NRM referral, there is still a ‘duty to notify’ the Home Office that a potential victim of modern slavery has been identified. Full details can be found in the Modern Slavery chapter.  Any referral to the NRM or notification to the Home Office should come after the appropriate safeguarding steps have been taken and in light of the multi agency discussions held.

6. Practice Points

Put victims first –adults who are being exploited by county lines, they may look like they are agreeing to be involved in the criminality, but they may not actually recognise that they are being exploited. Practitioners should remember that vulnerable adults who have been groomed, coerced, manipulated and exploited into criminal activity have not freely chosen to be involved and therefore cannot consent to being exploited. They should be seen as victims first and foremost. Trauma informed approaches should be used, and the adult should be involved in the safeguarding process and next steps to build their trust (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Working definition of trauma-informed practice – guidance on trauma-informed practice).

Understand the risks – professional curiosity is important when working with adults who may be a county lines victim. Practitioners should keep a log of activity and save any evidence.  Information should be shared with other professionals to gather the full picture.

Work in partnership with other organisations – collaboration and information sharing are essential to protect victims and disrupt offenders.

Appendix 1: County Lines Posters

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