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Artillery Row

Don’t blame “county lines” victims

Exploited children need protecting, not convicting

According to a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice, British Boys are now the most likely demographic to be trafficked into modern day slavery in the UK. In a report published in February 2024, the CSJ found that almost two thirds of all human trafficking referrals since late 2019 were males of British origin, with 65 per cent of this cohort being under the age of 17. Nearly all of these children have been trafficked through criminal child exploitation, and this is happening through “county lines” drug networks. 

There is serious money to be made from county lines. Official government statistics estimate that each county line can make up to £800,000 a year. The adoption of cheap throwaway mobile phones that run on Pay-As-You-Go networks, often called “burner phones,” allows gangs to carry out their business in multiple areas around the UK and use trafficked children to assist their supply network. In a shocking example of this, a report by the Crest Advisory in 2020, found that almost all known County Lines activity in North Wales was directly linked to Merseyside. Liverpool Gangs even hunted for local children in North Wales, some of whom were in care, to help manage and run their drug networks. 

Since county lines rely on luring in new customers from rural areas and small towns, drug gangs will often find a “base” to sell drugs within these areas. This involves a method commonly known as “cuckooing,” whereby the homes of drug dealers or vulnerable people are often “taken over” by a gang. The name is derived from the habitual behaviour of the cuckoo bird, who will lay their eggs in the nests of other, smaller birds, at the expense of both the mother and her chicks. 

Cuckooing is a nasty business. Mainly, those exploited for their homes tend to be vulnerable adults or drug addicts. Trafficked children and teenagers are often placed in cuckooed homes to oversee the sale of drugs, which means children ranging from nine to seventeen years olds are forced to live in drug dens, also known as “trap houses” for prolonged periods of time. Often, there is no access to clean water, showers or food. 

Callum* currently lives in Manchester, and was involved in county lines as a teenager. As a child growing up in Hull,* he was considered vulnerable by social services, and taken into care on two occasions. As his mother spiralled into debt, alcohol addiction and relationships with men who abused him, he was often left homeless for prolonged periods of time. 

Callum was recruited into a county lines gang at age fourteen, where he started transporting drugs up and down the country, sometimes going as far as Scotland. He was lured in by promises of money and a sense of belonging that he was unable to find within his mother’s home, or the care system. He spent over six months living in various drug dens, some of which were linked to cuckooing. 

“Obviously, it’s hard when you go away [to trap houses.] You can’t wash, you don’t eat. There wasn’t even a shower… the houses were just crack dens…I remember asking the lad who’d sent me: ‘But what about these punters [drug addicts], what if they try and rob me?’ I was the only thing standing in between them and their drugs, so things could get nasty. I remember he just laughed, saying, ‘stand your ground. Don’t show them you’re frightened.’ You get brutalised pretty quick, you start having to become quite inhumane to survive in those situations…I had to carry a knife…You basically have to sleep with one eye open.” 

Eventually, Callum was stabbed by rival gang members, who tried to steal a large quantity of drugs that they believed he was carrying. He was then arrested in a drug den and served three years in prison. Since he was under the care of the social services, by the time he was released, he left prison homeless.  

When I spoke with Callum about his time living in cuckooed homes amongst drug addicts, he is clearly filled with mixed feelings of regret and shame: “It’s hard, because you could see a lot of them needed help, but you’re someone who isn’t addicted to drugs, living with drug addicts… punters are difficult. It gets crazy.” 

Since I worked in the Merseyside homeless sector for three years, I’ve always been well aware of terms like “punters” and “nittys” to describe drug addicts. However, these words are problematic to the county lines issue because they dehumanise addicts, which allows drug dealers to justify their position. More importantly, the dehumanisation of addicts reduces the chances of us ever looking at the problem of addiction seriously. After all, why would anyone want to help a “nitty”? 

Unfortunately, as someone who has worked with people severely addicted to drugs, I can see why drug dealers are able to dehumanise drug addicts. They live their lives on the fringes of society, their frenzy-like behaviour which defines their existence swings between disparate, needy and aggressive. But, of course, I also deeply sympathise, because addiction is a monster that does not rest or sleep. Rehabilitation spaces are few and far between. Ultimately, this is why the profits for county lines remain so high: drugs like crack and heroin remain in a never-ending cycle of demand. 

This leads to an interesting point about the way in which the government is trying to tackle county lines. It makes no sense that the police and government have not considered addressing addiction and the demand for drugs as a response to county lines. Instead, the focus remains on criminalising drug dealers, even if they might be vulnerable and abused young people or children like Callum, who have been coerced and trafficked at age fourteen. Since county lines drug networks rely on drug addiction in order to thrive, why isn’t tackling addiction a priority for the government and police? 

The definitions that do surround the success of reducing county lines only speak about criminalisation and arrests. According to the National County Lines Coordination Centre, the success of policing county lines is defined by their own guidelines of “type 1” and ‘type 2” line closures. The most successful line closure results in an arrest and conviction of those managing the lines, but the guidelines fail to clarify whether this might be someone like Callum, caught in a “trap house” at the age of 16 after being stabbed and trafficked by a gang, or whether it’s the kingpin at the top, who doesn’t get their hands dirty. 

Laura Bainbridge, a criminology professor at Leeds University, has been researching county lines for a number of years. She is well-aware of the harsh realities that children who have been trafficked and coerced into county lines face, and their experiences within the justice and prison system. According to Laura: 

It is my belief that children identified as being entangled in county lines activity should be safeguarded and diverted at the earliest opportunity, with criminal justice processes being reserved for the exploiters themselves.

Interestingly, the NCLCC also fails to mention in their guidelines about how they define line closures. They state that “check backs” will be conducted to ensure the phone line isn’t running anymore, but does the closure of a basic Pay-As-You-Go “burner” phone number mean that the line has been shut down? Absolutely not. A dedicated county line can easily return and reestablish their network with the same customers in the same area, with the use of another Pay-As-You-Go number and burner phone. 

This is exemplified through the story of Pete, a 23 year old from Bolton, currently living in Spain. He became involved in county lines at age 17 after developing a gambling addiction, which made his family relationships break down. He fell in with a gang after his dad made him leave their family home. Everything came crashing down on Pete when the police raided the trap house he was in. He was arrested, charged and when he was released, he also became homeless as a result. 

“I knew I would never be safe…They [the gang] were still managing the line, they were around the area, with the same customers, in the same places. My dad helped me leave England, and I’ll probably never be able to come back.” 

Pete may have escaped with the help of his family, but other young people are not so lucky. Pete’s friend, who was in the trap house with him and had been known to social services throughout his childhood and spent time in unregulated care homes, ended up back in a cycle of crime and eventually took his own life last year. 

Sadly, many of the children exploited through county lines have been known to social services, many of whom were placed in unregulated children’s care homes, which are accommodation placements not subject to Ofsted examinations and not required to comply with The Care Standards Act of 2000. Due to this lack of diligence and care, it has been widely reported by children’s rights charities that children have been directly recruited to work on county lines via unregulated care homes. Only this year, The Guardian interviewed one young person who was housed in a care placement that “turned out to be a trap house” and ended up fearing for their life. Despite the limited care and facilities on offer, and the links to county lines, nearly all of these care homes were run for profit, some by private equity firms in Dubai. 

When we consider the links between human trafficking and county lines, as well as the susceptibility for  children in care to end up working within them, criminalising young people who become involved in county lines is not only cruel, but completely fails to tackle the issue of county lines head on. The police need to develop a different approach, and care homes that allow vulnerable children to go missing must have their funding pulled and those in charge must be held accountable. 

When I spoke with the police for the purposes of this article, Detective Chief Superintendent Gareth Williams informed me of the following: “We don’t seek to criminalise children, and we use arrests as an opportunity to make a safeguarding intervention and gather intelligence into the organised crime groups who exploit children.” However, according to official government statistics, between 2021 and 2022, 13,800 children were arrested and the average custodial length for children has increased by over six months.

until the necessary legislation is in place to change county lines policing, trafficked children may still pay the price

It seems that while the police may sometimes have the intention of helping children, until the necessary legislation is in place to change county lines policing, trafficked children may still pay the price. Children who have been the victims of trafficking must be supported, and gaping holes in our care system that allow systematic abuse must be closed and care homes held accountable. 

In the midst of all this chaos, and when the justice and care system has failed children or exhausted their powers, charities are often left to pick up the pieces for the lives of trafficked and exploited young people within county lines drug networks. (And, they receive significantly less funding than the care homes which allowed this damage to happen under their watch!) “Streetlife” in Blackpool is one of these charities, and they offer a round-the-clock service to support vulnerable young people, equipping them with tools, skills and support to move forward in life. Many of the young people there have been involved in county lines. 

Over the years, Laura has dedicated her time to helping children with complex needs who have suffered with trauma and mental health issues, some of which is down to their experiences on the county lines. Laura tells me that some of this is PTSD, and it doesn’t get better for young people in prison, where they become more susceptible to ‘experienced offenders’ and are discharged homeless, with no rehabilitation. She also pointed to perhaps one of the most important reasons that children end up on these lines in the first place: “Psychologically, gangs can make a person feel part of a community, but we could be that community, the intervention.” 

This is certainly true for children like Callum and Pete, or those in the care system, who find themselves working within county lines when their own relationships at home broke down. Rehabilitation is the only way to help young people build their own support networks, which may be the key to saving their lives and recognising exploitation. As Laura reminds me: “It’s not about being ‘soft’ per se – but does the current system actually work?”

If the words and experiences of the children in this article are anything to go by: we can say the system is well and truly broken. It’s time for the adults to fix it. 

[*] Some details and names have been changed in this article in order to protect the identities of those involved.

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