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Child abuse

County lines

‘County lines’ is the police term used to describe gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas, market and coastal towns across the UK using dedicated mobile phone lines.

These organised crime networks exploit children and young people to store, move, sell and deliver their drugs, often making them travel across counties.

They use children because they are cheaper, more easily controlled and less likely to be picked up by the police.

No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part, but The Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity.

Vulnerable children and young people, for example those who are homeless or living in care, have special educational needs or mental health problem, are targeted by gangs and are recruited, often via social media. Gangs also looks for children with emotional vulnerability, such as those experiencing problems at home, absent or busy parents or bereavement, and then seek and fill that emotional gap and become ‘their family’, then take advantage of them.

These children and young people are groomed, threatened or tricked into trafficking drugs for gangs who often use intimidation and violence, or threaten the young person’s family. They might also offer something in return for the young person’s cooperation, for example money, food, alcohol, clothes and jewellery, or improved status, but these gifts will usually be manipulated so that the child feels they are in debt to their exploiter and have no choice but to do what they want.

What are the signs that a child or young person is involved in county lines?

  • leaving home without explanation
  • returning home unusually late or staying out all night
  • coming home looking particularly dishevelled
  • unexplained injuries or suspicion of physical assault
  • persistently going missing or being found in areas away from home
  • being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
  • meeting with unfamiliar people or associating with a gang
  • becoming isolated from peers and friends
  • having a friendship or relationship with someone who appears older or controlling
  • unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
  • loss of interest in school, college or work and decline in performance
  • sudden changes in lifestyle
  • significant changes in emotional wellbeing
  • increasingly disruptive or aggressive and violent behaviour
  • using sexual, gang, drug-related or violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • starting or increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
  • unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewellery
  • having hotel cards or keys to unknown places
  • using more than one phone
  • receiving an excessive amount of texts or phone calls
  • carrying a weapon

This is not an exhaustive list. The indicators for exploitation can sometimes be mistaken for ‘normal adolescent behaviours’ and the warning signs presented by children and young people who are being exploited will present differently for each individual.

Listen to this Guardian podcast for more information on how drugs gangs are recruiting children.


Getting help

Devon and Cornwall Police

Further information about county lines - including how to spot the signs, what to look out for, who is vulnerable and how to report anything suspicious.

101 or 999

The Children's Society

Information about understanding the signs of criminal exploitation and advice on how to get help, including case studies and resources for parents and professionals.


Independent charity which provides an anonymous helpline allowing people to report any kind of suspicious criminal activity.

0800 555 111 10

If you are worried about the safety or wellbeing of a child or young person in Devon,
please complete the request for support online form.


If you think that the child is at risk of significant harm,
contact our Front Door directly by calling 0345 155 1071.


In an emergency call 999.