The Ministry of Justice have published a practice guide providing referral pathways for practitioners, particularly for Youth Offending Teams, when responding to and safeguarding children involved in county lines. It aims to increase national consistency, better co-ordinate the response to county lines and improve the safeguarding of children who are being exploited in this way.
County lines refers to organised criminal networks involved in trafficking illegal drugs within the UK, exploiting children and vulnerable adults to move, hold and sell them. The victims are often 15-17 year old children who are groomed with money, gifts or through sexual and violent relationships.
The guide lists signs which may indicate that a child may be being exploited through county lines. These include: persistently going missing from school, home, or care; being found in, areas with which they have no obvious connection; unwillingness to explain their whereabouts; and unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, accessories or mobile phones.
The report highlights the importance of collaboration and information sharing between agencies, stating that the success of the county lines model for drug dealing is in part due to dealers exploiting the lack of system join up across geographical and administrative boundaries in the UK. A collaborative, multi-agency approach is therefore paramount and information sharing by key stakeholders, including local authority children’s social services, youth offending services, police forces, and others is crucial.
The figure below illustrates the best practice referral pathways recommended for Youth Offending Teams and other frontline practitioners to follow when they believe a child may be a victim of county lines exploitation. Practitioners should bear in mind that, in such cases, the primary aim is safeguarding the children involved.