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Last updated: 02.03.20

What are county lines?

In the world of safeguarding, the term ‘county lines’ takes on a sinister definition that can destroy lives. In this blog, we delve into the concept of county lines in safeguarding practices and how it affects the young and most vulnerable people in society.

How do county lines work?

County lines is a practice which drug gangs from larger cities in the country use to spread their trade to smaller towns and villages. The phrase itself actually originates from the phonelines that the city dealers use to organise and promote their wares in the rural areas.

How it works is quite simple. Drug traffickers set up operations in small towns in rural Britain. Once they have a number of users and dependents, they hand out contact details for a number of ‘deal lines’ which are telephone numbers which the users contact to obtain drugs. These deal lines connect to the dealers in the larger city, who then use a network of runners, based in the rural regions, to deliver the drugs to the users. A key factor in county lines is the exploitation of young and vulnerable people to be used as these runners from county to county.

This practice allows dealers to sell their wares across a wide area while avoiding the harsher spotlight that operating in rural towns would involve – but it can have devasting effects on the people who live in those towns and those who are pushed into taking part.

Who is affected?

Besides the residents of the towns targeted by county lines who are introduced to harmful drugs, many of the main victims of the practice are young and vulnerable, often children, who are forced or coerced into selling drugs as runners in the rural towns.

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.

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, others are 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.

What to do if you know a victim

If you know someone who is, or may be, a victim of county lines drug trafficking, you can help. Reporting of suspected county lines 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 who 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.

For teachers, social workers and parents, a knowledge of county lines and the signs that someone is involved in the practice is essential to help protect vulnerable children from descending into a web of drug-based crime. Our safeguarding courses can help, featuring interactive learning materials that provide comprehensive and informative content around county lines and safeguarding in general. You can find them here.

You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this poster on spotting the signs of child grooming, and this video on safeguarding children.