Young people who are groomed are manipulated and controlled by their abusers.  The ‘elders’ within the criminal gang have complete power over them. They may be forced to hold guns or knives as well as large quantities of drugs. 

As part of the grooming process, the gangs will make children mistrust social workers and the police. ‘Snitching’ is made out to be the worst thing a child can do. Victims will be scared of telling on someone because of the repercussions for them or their families back home. 

Gangs often use threats, coercion and violence to force children to do what they want. Punishments are common for children involved within county lines. This is usually for mistakes deemed to have been made. The gang will respond with often physical or financial punishments for the child. The punishments can be extremely violent such as stabbings, and acid attacks. The financial punishments often mean any mistakes made that lose money for the gang have to be repaid with an extortionate amount of money added on top as interest. Often this will just keep getting added to. Gangs may also trick children into getting into their debt, for example, by giving them a mobile phone or drugs only to later demand repayment for the cost. The child will then be in ‘debt bondage’ to the gang as described above.

Concealing and carrying drugs
Children and young people can be shown how, or made, to internally insert and carry drugs in their rectum or vagina. Children and young people can often store wrapped drugs in their cheeks, which can then be more easily swallowed if approached by police. Children and young people are often given targets to sell drugs to, given modes of transport such as bikes or train tickets, weapons to protect themselves, and a phone with drug users’ contacts on it.

Phone lines
The phone lines can be worth thousands of pounds. There is monetary value in the selling of drugs and weapons, and also sexual exploitation related to this type of trafficking. This creates a place where perpetrators can have financial gain through the victimhood of children and vulnerable adults.

Debt bondage
The gangs have been known to set up children and young people in staged robberies, meaning that the child or young person believes they are in debt to the perpetrators. This is known as ‘debt bondage’, where the child or young person believes they have to work for free to pay off the debt. This can also apply if the child or young person is genuinely robbed, or if they are arrested and have drugs, money or the phone confiscated by police.


Just because county lines may not get the coverage of other societal issues, it doesn’t mean it’s a small problem. In factmost police forces across the country have reported county lines activity in their area and they say the violence is getting worse. It’s not just a ‘big city’ problem’. County lines is far-reaching, with many smaller towns being affected. 

In 2019/20 nearly 7,000 children were arrested for drug offences. A further 2,063 were charged with weapon offences. 

In 2021:

  • 46,000 children in England are thought to be involved in gangs. There is likely to be many more. 
  • 90% of English police forces have seen county lines activity in their area and the violence is getting worse. 
  • 4,000 teenagers are being criminally exploited in London alone 
  • There has been an 55% increase in drug arrests in London since the start of the lockdown
  • There has been an 807% increase in children referred for support by councils in relation to modern slavery.

Data source: The Children’s Society