The Home Office defines Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) as:
Child Criminal Exploitation…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. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual.
Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation.
Child Criminal exploitation is broader than just county lines and includes for instance children forced to work on cannabis farms, to commit theft, shoplift or pickpocket, or to threaten other young people.
County lines is a form of Child Criminal Exploitation. It is a term used to describe the activities of gangs and organised criminal networks who are involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more areas within the UK.
These gangs 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.
The adults running these networks remain at a distance from the frontline activity of drug dealing, reducing the risk of being caught and instead - they exploit vulnerable children who are at high risk of significant harm transporting and selling drugs, often many miles from home. Some children are forced to carry the drugs in harmful ways that are abusive and could result in their death. For example, 'plugging' is commonly used, which is when children can be forced to insert and carry drugs in their rectum or vagina.
Children may be sent to another area of the country to live with a vulnerable adult whose home has been taken over by the gang in exchange for a continued supply of drugs. This is known as 'cuckooing'. These environments are extremely dangerous for children who face the risk of violence from their exploiters and / or the drug users who have been cuckooed, as well as from an unsafe physical environment featuring toxic substances and used needles.
Other dealers in the area may also target these children to prevent them taking over their 'patch' - exposing them to the risk of more violence.
County lines activity is dynamic, and perpetrators will change their methods of exploitation quickly. As professionals become more responsive to identifying children at risk, criminals adapt their tactics. This may be by targeting new groups of children to exploit to avoid detection or recruiting children within the local area and hence avoid the risk of them being identified when travelling. As a result a child who is exploited can leave their home or care placement in the morning, sell drugs and return the same day and so avoid being reported missing.
There are high levels of violence and intimidation linked to county lines activity. Children can be very quickly groomed into criminal activity, often before parents or professionals realise what is happening.
Initially they may be trusted with small activities or 'minor' tasks that may seem inconsequential to the child but which lead to a rapid escalation in demand and risk. Although the risk to the child is already present, at this point they are often unaware and may begin to believe that they have the trust and respect of their 'elders'.
One of the tactics that may be used by perpetrators involves staging a fake robbery where the drugs and money concealed on the child are stolen by their own gang. In these cases, the child believes they have lost money, drugs or phone contacts that are valuable to those running the county lines, and that they must work for free to repay the debt. Perpetrators might also threaten the safety of their family or parents, or their homes.
It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs, and to remember that the receipt of something (e.g. money, drugs, 'status') by a child or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example a child who engages in county lines activity to prevent someone carrying out a threat to harm their family.
All criminally exploited children are at risk of neglect, emotional harm, sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as substance misuse and extreme forms of violence. Sexual violence can be used as a form of punishment.
Younger siblings may be recruited through fear, violence and intimidation against the family of older children who have already been exploited.
The trauma caused by intimidation, violence, witnessing drug use or overdoses and continued threats to themselves or to family members can lead to significant mental and physical ill-health of exploited children.