Last updated: 24.04.23

What are County Lines?

In the world of safeguarding, the term ‘county lines’ takes on a sinister definition that can destroy lives. You may have heard the term mentioned in crime television shows or films, but it’s more than just a plot device and actually affects thousands of young people in the UK every year.

Adults can become unwillingly involved in criminal activity connected to county lines, but it’s a problem that largely affects children and causes significant damage if nobody intervenes. In this article, we delve into the concept of county lines in safeguarding practices and discuss how it affects the young and most vulnerable people in society.

What are County Lines?

County lines is a criminal practice which drug gangs from larger cities in the country use to spread their trade to smaller towns and villages. It’s a form of exploitation that involves children or young people being groomed and exploited by county line gangs to facilitate the transportation of drugs 

The phrase ‘county lines’ refers to the single phone line that is used to take orders of drugs that are then distributed across a gang’s network. The number of this ‘line’ is regularly changed and the phones themselves will be cheap and easy to dispose of so that gang members cannot be traced by the police.

How Do County Lines Work?

Country lines begin when a criminal gang will set up a ‘base’ in a small, usually rural town in the UK. They sometimes take over a house belonging to a local vulnerable person in a practice that is known as ‘cuckooing’ because of the cuckoo bird’s habit of taking over other birds' nests for their chicks.

Once a gang or a dealer has an established base, they will circulate contact details for a ‘line’ that allows users to buy and obtain drugs. These contact details connect to drug dealers that are based in larger cities, allowing dealers to sell their wares across a wide area while avoiding the harsher spotlight that operating in rural towns would involve.

Drug dealers use ‘runners’ to transport the drugs from the cities to the rural bases and then distribute these to the people that pay for them. These runners are usually children, young people or vulnerable adults that have been exploited or manipulated into becoming involved with drug dealing.

Gangs use vulnerable people and children to move drugs between locations or distribute them to users because it makes it harder for police to track where the drugs are coming from. It also prevents more powerful gang members or leading dealers from having to engage in activities where they might be caught with drugs and imprisoned.

County lines can have devastating effects on the people who live in rural towns and those who are pushed into taking part. Crime levels and levels of violent crime in particular are often higher in locations where county lines operate, with reports from the Children’s Society saying that 90% of English police forces have seen country line activity in their area, often connected to an increase in violence. 

Who is Affected by County Lines?

Besides the residents of the towns targeted by county lines who are introduced to harmful drugs, members of county lines gangs often target particularly vulnerable young people and will ease them into county lines child exploitation. These people are forced or coerced into selling drugs as runners in rural towns and become trapped in gang activity.

These children are often lured in by drug traffickers who promise them luxury goods, money or simply friendship in what is considered a grooming process. Some of these runners are forced to run the drugs under the threat of physical violence towards them or their families, and others are blackmailed by the dealers.

Whilst any child may be targeted by a country lines gang, the following factors increase the risk that a child may become involved in drug dealing:

  • Living in care
  • Homelessness
  • Poverty
  • Social isolation
  • Friends or family members involved in gangs
  • Exclusion from mainstream education
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Mental health issues
  • Learning difficulties
  • A history of abuse or neglect 

The reasons that these factors increase the risk of county line child exploitation is that gangs tend to prey on children lacking structure, support or a sense of belonging. They also tend to target children that won’t instantly be noticed or missed if they start behaving differently or travelling to new places.

Getting involved in county lines can drag children and vulnerable people into a cycle of running drugs which they can’t escape. Many of the runners come from difficult backgrounds; some are homeless or are having a hard time at home, whilst others might be lonely and experiencing social and learning difficulties. 

Once they’ve become ensnared in the county lines, they are controlled by the dealers who use violence and threats to keep them in line, making them too scared to run away or to talk to the authorities. They may just start out being asked to ‘keep watch’ but these requests will often escalate over time.

What are the Signs of County Lines?

Knowing the signs of county lines can make it easier to start identifying young people that may be involved in criminal activity. The following kind of activity may indicate that county lines gangs are operating in your area:

  • Increased anti-social behaviour in the community
  • Indication of increase drug use in the local area
  • Unfamiliar young people in the local area, or young people that seem unfamiliar with the area
  • Regular new residents in the area, especially people with accents that aren’t local
  • Increased truancy from school; more young people seen outside school during the day
  • Changes in the way that local children dress and behave
  • Young people being driven around in taxis or by unfamiliar adults
  • Local residents, both adult and children, going missing or disappearing for long periods
  • Increased visitors to a house or flat
  • Increased cars parking outside or near to a house or flat
  • New residents regularly appearing at a particular house or flat
  • A local resident suddenly becoming more withdrawn, aggressive, secretive or emotional
  • Local residents or strangers unexpectedly having expensive new things like cars, clothes or jewellery

There are explanations for many of the above signs that aren’t connected to county lines activity at all, but if you notice multiple county lines warning signs then you can mention your concerns to the police on the non-emergency number, 101. It’s not recommended that you try and engage with potential gang members directly, as you could put yourself in danger by doing so.

As well as general signs of UK county lines in your local area, county lines awareness training also often covers the signs that a child or young person has become involved in county line activity and is being exploited.

These county lines signs include:

  • A serious decline in a child’s performance at school
  • Frequent cases of a child missing school or going missing from home 
  • A child travelling to, or being found in areas, that they don’t have an obvious connection to
  • A lack of explanation from a child about where they are or have spent time
  • Relationships between a child and older, controlling individuals
  • A child becoming isolated from their peers or stopping seeing previous friends
  • Involvement in gang activity, or a child hanging around known gang members
  • A child suddenly acquiring money, gifts or a phone that they can’t explain
  • Sudden changes in a child’s personality, behaviour and vocabulary 
  • A child having multiple phones or SIM cards that they use excessively throughout the day and night
  • Signs of changes in a child’s mental health, sometimes accompanied by maladaptive behaviour
  • A child gaining unexplained injuries

If you have a safeguarding responsibility towards children and young people, you should be aware of these signs of county line activity and child exploitation and report your concerns to a designated safeguarding lead. There are other explanations for a lot of the behaviour, but in many cases it points to some kind of exploitation and indicates that a child needs help or support.

What to Do if You Know a Victim of County Lines

If you know someone who is, or could be, a victim of county lines drug trafficking, you can help. If you work as part of an organisation with a safeguarding duty of care, you should be able to speak to a safeguarding officer who will be able to contact the relevant local services.

If you don’t have access to a safeguarding professional, suspected county line activity should always be reported to the police, which can be done by ringing the non-emergency number which is 101, or, if it’s an emergency, by calling 999. To remain anonymous while reporting an instance of drug trafficking, you can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

If you know, or are, a child involved in county lines but who doesn’t want to talk to the police, there are a number of charities that can help. The first one to call should be Childline on 0800 1111, which is a confidential number connected to specialist counsellors. Before you do so, it can be a good idea to talk to an adult you trust, such as a teacher, a parent or a social worker.


What are county lines gangs?

County line gangs are the groups involved in county lines, which is a drug dealing practice that involves large networks of dealers operating around the county. These gangs will often be based in a rural town and have access to drugs from a nearby city, regularly exploiting young people or vulnerable adults to transport the drugs between these areas and then distribute them to users.

What is county lines exploitation?

County lines exploitation is the exploitation that happens as a result of county lines activity, often impacting children and vulnerable adults. This exploitation will often involve forcing vulnerable individuals to transport drugs around the country on behalf of a gang, blackmailing and manipulating them with threats of violence or harm to other people.

What does county lines mean in safeguarding?

In safeguarding, county lines mean the criminal practice of spreading drugs from cities to rural locations using distribution lines run by gangs. It’s considered a safeguarding issue because these gangs usually operate by using children or vulnerable adults to handle and distribute the drugs, exploiting them and trapping them in gang activity.


For teachers, social workers and parents, knowledge of county lines and the signs that someone is involved in the practice are essential to help protect vulnerable children from descending into a web of drug-based crime. County lines happen across the country in all kinds of areas, so everyone needs to be aware of the impact that this activity can have and know how they can intervene to stop it.

If you’re looking for more information about county lines and the signs of this kind of criminal activity, we offer an online ‘Child Criminal Exploitation, Gangs and County Lines Training’ course that offers comprehensive training on gang activity and how children can be harmed through this.