County Lines – How we can help protect children from exploitation

County Lines is a form of Human Trafficking, if you’ve been following recent developments on the criminal exploitation of children in the UK you’ll know that some exploiters have been arrested.  

While we should celebrate every child rescued and every perpetrator stopped, it pays to remember that this is a huge and growing issue in the UK. We are about to launch a child exploitation awareness and prevention campaign that aims to help caregivers identify possible indicators of child exploitation including county lines. Here’s some key information that is worth knowing.  

There were 4,946 children referred to the NRM as victims of trafficking in 2020. This is up 10% from the year before, and is a problem that COVID-19 is likely to have exacerbated.  

Force or coercion can be used in recruitment, however recruitment often occurs through family ties and networks, in-person to gain trust and/or by targeting specific locations where vulnerable people might be. The grooming might start through a promise of work, through gifts, through a promise of accommodation, care, or belonging.  

Self-identifying as a victim of trafficking and exploitation is rare among children, and the tactics of control used by traffickers aren’t always immediately evident. Children will often deny exploitation is happening, and there are many reasons they might not identify as a victim. Grooming, fear, denial, loyalty, shame, embarrassment, feeling trapped, and pride can all play a role. 

It is natural for any person, particularly a young person finding their feet in the world, to want to be loved, respected, understood and appreciated in their community. Exploiters may go to great lengths to identify and satisfy the emotional and/or material needs of a child in order to win their trust, offering their targets affection, emotional support, gifts or money. Once exploiters have gained a child’s trust, they may use emotional manipulation to groom, control and coerce their victims into doing what they want.  

Traffickers use methods such as building psychological dependence, false loyalty, making false promises, shame, fear, loyalty, blackmail, sexual violence the withholding of food, shelter or substances. 

In some situations, an exploiter may make a child believe they have a debt to pay back for the gifts and favours that they may have received. When this happens, the child falls into a situation where they are forced to ‘pay back’ this perceived debt.  

How can I tell a child is being exploited?

A child who is being groomed or exploited may show drastic changes in behaviour, and these can all be very different, depending on the child and situation.  

Skipping school, forming relationships with older people, changes in personality, behaving strangely around their phone, physical injuries, sleep deprivation, coming home with unexplained gifts or money, being in possession of a large quantity of drugs, using unexpected sexual, drug-related or violent language, having keys to hotels or unknown properties, the arrival of unexplained bank statements…  

These can all be signs that a child is at risk of exploitation or being exploited by someone. Think about who is gaining most from the interactions that the child is having. If it is not the child, then it could be exploitation. 

It’s important to be mindful that lots of the signs of potential exploitation are difficult to identify. Many of the indicators above are common traits within adolescents, so how do you know if a child is a young person is being exploited and not just navigating growing up?  

If you are worried, ask your child what is going on. But remember, they might not be willing or able to talk about it.  

If you feel like something isn’t right, there are organisations you can reach out to for advice and support: 

SPACE – Stop & Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation

SPACE is a specialist organisation launched in response to the prevalence of County Lines driven Child Criminal Exploitation. It works to improve the response to victims by campaigning, raising awareness and providing training to statutory responders and communities. The organisation offers guidance and assistance to affected parents and carers and an expert witness service.

Contact | Website


The NSPCC has created free resources on spotting the signs of child abuse and on how to talk to your child about online safety. 

0808 800 5000 | nspcc.org.uk 


A children’s and young people’s mental health charity with resources, toolkits and training on mental wellbeing. 

@YoungMindsUK | youngminds.org.uk/resources/ 

ECPAT (Greater London) 

If you would like the learn more about child exploitation in the UK, you might be interested in this free resource from ECPAT UK. 

[email protected] | www.ecpat.org.uk 

If you are a young person or parent, and are not in immediate danger, you can download the STOP APP to safely and anonymously report what you have experienced or have suspicions on to help us build a clear data picture that will enable us to best tackle child exploitation.  

Latest posts

  • 17.05.24

    Triggering Schools to STOP THE TRAFFIK

  • 09.05.24

    The Experience of Romanian and Albanian Nationals in London

  • 30.04.24

    STOP THE TRAFFIK’s Workers’ Rights Campaign

  • 20.03.24

    Reflections on Combating Human Trafficking

More posts

Support us

Your donations are vital to enabling us to combat human trafficking. Together we'll stop it.

Donate today

Get the STOP APP

The first of its kind in combining; community empowerment, big data management and anti-trafficking expertise to disrupt, combat and prevent the global issues of human trafficking, modern slavery and exploitation.

About the STOP APP

Download on the App Store Get it on Google Play

Join our global mailing list

News about what we're doing, campaign updates and how you can get involved.

"(Required)" indicates required fields

Taking care of your data

By signing up to our mailing list you consent to receive communications from STOP THE TRAFFIK by email. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information please visit our Privacy Policy.