Criminal Exploitation – information for practitioners

Children, young people or adults who are used, through whatever means, to engage in criminal activity by other young people or adults who are able to coerce them to do so.

The coercion is achieved through grooming, intimidation, acts of violence and debt bondage. The individuals involved may not identify themselves as being ‘exploited’ as such, but it is clearly to their detriment that they are involved in this type of activity.

Criminal exploitation is a safeguarding issue and everyone has a responsibility to protect and support individuals

Our Vision
To ensure a coordinated multi-agency response to protect and support children, young people and adults involved in, or at risk of, criminal exploitation. This includes the disruption, arrest and prosecution of offenders. We will do this by raising awareness of practitioners and communities to identify, and act upon, the indicators of exploitation.

Our Response
Children, young people or adults who are exploited, coerced or trafficked into committing crimes are victims who require a safeguarding response and access to support. As such, any practitioner who has concerns about an individual who is being, or is at risk of, criminal exploitation should follow local safeguarding guidance and share this information with the relevant services.

For more information see our gang activity & serious youth violence resource  and the MSP Criminal Exploitation Policy Statement 2018 (re published)

Programme Challenger is Greater Manchester’s partnership approach to tackling serious organised crime in all its forms. Responding to the problem of organised crime is not solely the responsibility of the police and the criminal justice system. Find out more on their website at

What we know

  • the National Crime Agency believes criminal exploitation is present in some form in all counties in England and Wales
  • criminal exploitation is a hidden but increasing crime, with numbers still emerging in Manchester and work is ongoing to build a clear picture of the scale
  • criminal exploitation is typically carried out by organised crime groups and criminal networks
  • victims will often be used to prepare, store, operate phone lines in connection with, and deliver controlled drugs; in Manchester exploitation also includes the storage of firearms and money as well as wider criminal activity such as committing robbery offences
  • victims often live in the same local area as the exploiters and will be coerced into engaging in criminal activity both within and outside of Manchester
  • children, young people and adults are especially vulnerable to criminal exploitation
  • ‘cuckooing’ is a term that refers to the exploiters acquiring the use of a local property occupied by an adult (often who is vulnerable) which they can use as a base for their criminal activities.

Overlapping issues
Children and young people who are criminally exploited often also experience child sexual exploitation and abuse, serious violence and psychological trauma.

These young people will often go missing for days at a time, as they are trafficked around the country by gangs. The number of children who go missing and are exploited through ‘county lines’ is not known. Some of them may not even be reported as missing to the police because of fear of gangs.

County Lines exploitation – a nation-wide issue

The Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance was published by the Home Office in July 2017.

What is county lines exploitation?
County lines is the police term for urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. The group will use a single telephone number for customers ordering drugs, operated from outside the area, which becomes their ‘brand’. Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers have value so are maintained and protected.

It involves criminal exploitation as gangs use children and vulnerable people to move drugs and money. Gangs establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the homes of local vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’ – in some instances victims have left their homes in fear of violence.

Gangs employ various tactics to evade detection, including rotating gang members between locations so they are not identified by law enforcement or competitors, and using women and children to transport drugs in the belief that they are less likely to be stopped and searched.

County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons; and the response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations.

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities.

The Children’s Society has produced a ‘Toolkit for working with children and young people trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation in relation to ‘County Lines (PDF)’ and further information can be found on their website at

How does it affect young people and vulnerable adults?
Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines or criminal exploitation can:

  • affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years
  • affect any vulnerable adult over the age of 18 years
  • still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual
  • involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence
  • be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults
  • be typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation.

Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection).

It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfill the requirement for exchange, for example a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm their family.

Signs to look out for
A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A young person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a young person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.

Some indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area
  • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
  • excessive receipt of texts / phone calls
  • relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups
  • leaving home / care without explanation
  • suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
  • parental concerns
  • carrying weapons
  • significant decline in school results / performance
  • gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.

A second report on the drug distribution model known as ‘county lines’ has found that over 70% of police forces in England and Wales are now reporting established activity within their area.

County Lines was recently explored in a BBC Three documentary which highlighted the experiences of children who have been criminally exploited by gangs to sell drugs. It showed the shocking exploitation of young people and highlighted the lack of prosecution of those who exploit and traffic children to sell drugs.

For more information visit the National Crime Agency website at and the website at

The Youth Justice Resource Hub has some useful resources on their website at

Serious Violence Strategy

The Serious Violence Strategy sets out the government’s response to serious violence and recent increases in knife crime, gun crime and homicide.

Action in the strategy is centred on 4 main themes:

  • tackling county lines and misuse of drugs
  • early intervention and prevention
  • supporting communities and local partnerships
  • law enforcement and the criminal justice response.

The Strategy and further information can be found on the website at

Promotional materials
The Home Office is undertaking a range of work to raise awareness of what county lines (and associated criminal exploitation) is.

Promotional materials have been developed to support front-line staff understand the signs to look for in potential victims, and what to do about it. These materials support the cross-government approach to ending gang violence and exploitation and include posters aimed at:

More resources can be found on the website at

Trapped – campaign against the criminal exploitation of children & vulnerable adults

The criminal exploitation of children and adults (many of whom are vulnerable) is an issue in Greater Manchester and addressing this problem is a priority for Programme Challenger.

Criminal exploitation takes many forms, the most common relating to the supply and movement of drugs (often referred to as ‘County Lines’), offences in relation to guns and other weapons, money laundering, violent offences and in some cases ‘cuckooing’ where criminals forcibly take over control of a person’s home.

In order to raise awareness of these issues with the public and professionals, Programme Challenger has developed the Trapped campaign resources.

The resources are based around two videos that highlight the different ways in which children, young people and vulnerable adults can be exploited by criminals.

County Lines is the first campaign video; the second is The Present. Each comes with associated posters, leaflets, and social media assets, and we have titled all of the resources in line with the campaign video it relates to.

Download the Trapped Campaign Pack and resources from the Programme Challenger website  at

Anti-knife crime campaign

In March 2018, the Home Office launched an anti-knife crime advertising campaign to reduce knife crime among young people and challenge perceptions that carrying a knife is normal. The campaign forms part of the government’s Serious Violence Strategy, which sets out action to tackle serious violence by placing new emphasis on steering young people away from crime while continuing to promote the strongest possible law enforcement approach.

The campaign includes a dedicated #knifefree website which provides advice, signposts support services and highlights activities to empower young people to change their behaviour.

For further information visit the website at  or to download campaign resources visit the website at

Home Office Child Exploitation disruption toolkit

The toolkit is primarily aimed at front-line staff, including law enforcement, social care, education, housing and the voluntary sector, working to safeguard children and young people under the age of 18 from sexual and criminal exploitation – it can be found on the Home Office website at

The toolkit is also intended to help all safeguarding partners to understand and access existing legislative opportunities at their disposal and to target specific risks and threats.

The use of existing legislative powers, such as orders and injunctions, are an essential part of the safeguarding process. The toolkit aims to set out many of the tools useful for police and other safeguarding professionals to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people, break the cycle of abuse and send a signal to perpetrators about the consequences of their actions. The toolkit incorporates relevant legislation to address:

  • abduction and trafficking
  • sexual offences
  • victim care
  • unusual or harmful behaviour
  • locations of specific concern.

In addition, the toolkit includes best practice in information sharing and multi-agency working as well as intelligence and evidence gathering.

Other Home Office advice is available in relation to:

Downloads on this page:


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