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Child criminal exploitation is not just county lines!

“The exploitation of children can take a number of different forms and perpetrators may subject children and young people to multiple forms of abuse at the same time, such as criminal exploitation (including county lines) and sexual exploitation.”

The Home Office, 2019 (updated 2022)


When we think of child criminal exploitation (CCE) we automatically think of county lines, but it is more than that. County lines plays a big part in what we are seeing our young people getting involved with, but there is a bigger picture.

When we talk about county lines, we are talking about drug dealing operations being set up in smaller towns and villages where our children are being used to distribute the drugs. The children are either trafficked* to the area or recruited from the area. They are given small, disposable phones which they are contacted on. The children then, take the drugs out to whoever has ordered them and bring back the money. The children are kept in flats or houses which have been commandeered by targeting adults who are vulnerable. The conditions in these properties are unsafe, dangerous and threatening. Children go missing for periods of time and if they are found, can be miles away from home. These situations are scary and sometimes children find themselves being victims of physical harm and robbery. They have the money or drugs stolen from them when they are out and about (and this can be from the ‘family’ that they feel they belong to!) Why would they rob their own? They do this in order to manipulate that child further as they now have a debt and so are bonded by this debt and have to keep working until they pay it back – which they never do.


To feel safer children are encouraged to carry knives, in order to protect themselves! The children are also used to transport weapons around an area. This includes guns, knives, CS spray and acid.


Children are also being used in the cultivation and growth of cannabis. Children who have their own accommodation, who are trying to live independently, are being targeted by exploiters and forced into growing and cultivating cannabis plants. They are being coerced into doing this, through blackmail or threats. Children leaving the care system can be particularly vulnerable to this as they may have been moved from foster care into lodgings and are being expected to live independently. This can be hard enough for any 16 or 17 year old but coming from the care system can leave children even more vulnerable. Not only will they probably be dealing with existing trauma but they may not have been shown how to manage, day to day.


Some children also get pulled into theft and robbery. They can be used to steal items from shops, especially high value items. The perpetrator will be overseeing this and controlling what the child steals and the item can then be sold on. Likewise, children are used to beg and pickpocket, again under the supervision of the perpetrator.


Financial exploitation is also an element of criminal exploitation. We don’t normally associate this with children, but we are seeing more and more children being coerced and manipulated this way. Children who have bank accounts are being targeted as their accounts can be used to flush ‘dirty’ money back into the system. They often don’t realise these are criminal funds and find themselves being complicit in fraud or money laundering. Sometimes children are coerced into a ‘relationship’ with a perpetrator and then asked to hold money for them. The online world has not helped with this, the rise of online banking, gaming, technological advancement and social media has meant that perpetrators have more places and platforms they can target and exploit for financial gain. Children and often groomed on gaming platforms with the temptation of payment through cryptocurrencies, gifts and ‘skins’**.


Young people who are being financially exploited are often referred to as ‘money mules’. This is problematic because it is essentially describing children as animals. Using the term ‘money mule’ focuses on the person’s actions, the fraudulent bank activity. We then miss the complexity of the situation and the child’s exploitation.


So, you can see child criminal exploitation is more complex than just ‘county lines’. There are layers to what the children are being manipulated into. Not only are they being used to move drugs, but they are also being used in the cultivation of the drugs, in the financial world it all sits within and the violence that threads through it all.


We need to make sure we see all of the elements that it takes, and truly understand how children are being used in this way. We need to see children as being victims of exploitation and not criminals. We need to be aware of the signs of exploitation in both sexual and criminal exploitation and we need to respond to these children, appropriately. When we start doing this we can start to help and support these child victims and rehabilitate them back into our society.


*Trafficking is the illegal process of moving someone from one place to another. It can be international trafficking where someone is taken from one country to another or internal trafficking where someone is taken from one street to another – it doesn’t have to be a long distance. If someone is moved without their consent and at the end of the journey they are being taken advantage of and exploited then they are a victim of trafficking.


**When you sign up to a game you are given a computer-generated model of yourself – an avatar. This avatar comes with a default ‘skin’ which is usually simple and so you can buy or win new and better ‘skins’.


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