Quick Exit

Criminal Exploitation

As things start to 'go back to normal', after COVID-19, it is important to recognise that traditional signs of exploitation are now blended with new ones.  

No longer are we only looking for things such as new trainers, more money, getting taxis everywhere; we need to be aware 

of signs such as online commodities - receiving game currency and other gifts within games.  In today's world, a child could be working for a gang with no need to ever meet anyone or leave the house.

Criminal exploitation includes county lines but also includes children coerced or manipulated into criminal activity .  Initial contact can be made via social media and victims can be groomed similarly to sexual exploitation.  Young people can be criminally exploited by an adult or a peer.  The relationship is an unequal power imbalance that involves an exchange for tangible rewards (money, drugs or clothes etc) or intangible rewards (status, protection or perceived friendship).  The most common age for young people being exploited is 15-16 but this can include young children, this can also affect males and females.  Children who are not in regular school or are missing from education are considered to be at increased risk of criminal exploitation.

Children are often groomed or tricked into criminal activity before they realise the dangers.  Children can carry drugs in harmful ways, such as 'plugging' (drugs inserted into their rectum or vagina).  This is one example of how criminal and sexual exploitation can overlap.  Another example is the use of sexual violence which is used as punishment.

‘Child Criminal Exploitation is common in county lines* and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 years. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation doesn’t always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.’ (Home Office, 2018)


‘County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons. (Home Office, 2018)

88% of police forces report county lines activity in their areas with approximately 1,500 county lines nationally.  'County Lines' are when individuals or gangs use children to transport and sell drugs, primarily from urban areas into market or coastal towns or rural areas to establish new drug markets or take over existing ones. They also use children to transport and hide weapons and to secure dwellings of vulnerable people in the area, so that they can use them as a base from which to sell drugs ('cuckooing'). 

County Lines involves modern slavery and trafficking as well as exploitation, as the adults running the network are removed from the frontline activity of dealing and instead use children.  Violence and intimidation are a common feature of County Lines.  Increases in knife crime and youth violence can often be an indicator of a county line in a local area.  A young person's family could be threatened as a means of propelling them to 'work' for the drug network.

Working with young people criminally exploited

It is important to adopt a welfare approach - children who are criminally exploited are victims of crime and require a multi-agency system that understands their behaviour in the context of trauma, PTSD, mental health vulnerabilities and substance misuse.  This will help build trusting and stable relationships between young people and professionals which is essential to effectively safeguard them from this harm.

For many young people who have been criminally exploited, there are 'reachable moments', circumstances when a child is more likely to take up offers of support.  These include being arrested or seriously wounded.  Professionals should capitalise on these moments to effectively safeguard the young person.

In Essex, since July 2019 the Violence and Vulnerability Unit has funded two youth workers to engage with young people attending Basildon  A&E with serious wounds in an attempt to reach out to criminally exploited young people.   The pilot project reports that 73% of young people sign up for further support following discharge from hospital.

However, it is important to remember that all young people are 'reachable' at any stage of exploitation so we should not wait for moments when they are more 'reachable'.

See the section on engaging with young people under Sexual Exploitation for key messages from young people about ways we can positively connect with them.  Messages such as focusing on their strengths and resilience rather than the risks and problems they face can reframe your relationship with them and build connections.

Safeguarding Vulnerable Young People on Public Transport (Operation Henderson Campaign)

Operation Henderson is a joint initiative being run by Thurrock and Southend Safeguarding Children Partnerships, Essex Safeguarding Children Board, British Transport Police, Essex Police, the Violence and Vulnerabilities Unit, Rail Operators, local councils and The Railway Children.  It aims to raise awareness of the vulnerability of young people to exploitation and abuse at stations and transport networks in parts of Thurrock.


Criminal gangs are targeting the homes of vulnerable people to be used for drug dealing - a process known as "cuckooing" (like the bird that invades other bird's nests) and victims are often left with little choice but to cooperate.

The following individuals are sometimes targeted for cuckooing:-

  • Those who suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction
  • Those who are struggling financially
  • The elderly
  • People with mental health issues
  • Individuals with learning disabilities

What to do if you suspect a property is being 'cuckooed'?

Call Essex Police on 101 or 999 if an emergency to report drug-related information.  Please mention 'Operation Trespass' and 'Cuckooing' when you call.

Find out more 

Child Trafficking

If a child has been trafficked into the UK or is being trafficked within the UK then alongside normal safeguarding processes, a referral to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) needs to be made, this needs to be completed by a First Responder.  For more information on NRM, click here.

The NRM is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and modern slavery and ensuring they receive appropriate support.  All organisations and agencies have responsibility for identifying victims of trafficking, however, only 'first responders' can refer a potential victim into the NRM via a competent authority.  In all cases referred, there must be a referral to the Police (to report a potential crime) and Local Authority Children's Social Care (the responsibility for the care, protection and accommodation of child trafficking victims from the UK and abroad falls to local authorities under the 1989 and 2004 Children Act).  This will ensure necessary measures are taken to safeguard the child.  More information is in the SET Procedures (24.13).

The Home Office has updated the statutory guidance on the roles and responsibilities of Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTGs) in England and Wales.  ICTGs are an independent source of advice for children who have been trafficked and somebody who can speak up on their behalf.  The service has expanded to new areas in London (in addition to the Borough of Croydon where the service was already available), Essex, West Yorkshire, Merseyside, Kent, Surrey, Warwickshire, Bedfordshire, North Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Bristol and Lancashire.  For further guidance on accessing the service, click here


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