A long way from home: county lines, serious organised crime and exploitation in the UK

Gangs and serious organised crime groups are increasingly targeting vulnerable people, including children and young people to become involved in drug trafficking and other kinds of illegal activities. Police and local authorities assisted by third sector and charity partners are trying to stem the flow of vulnerable people leaving towns and cities and travelling elsewhere in the UK as part of a wider network of organised crime and exploitation. The aim is to break the chain of supply which is seeing organised crime move away from our inner cities to rural and coastal communities across the UK. From London to Liverpool, Glasgow to Cardiff, county lines practices have been growing, and solutions to prevent vulnerable people being targeted are needed urgently across the whole of the UK.

A growing emergency across the UK

Figures have shown a significant rise in the number of drug-related deaths across communities in the UK, with a significant rise in deaths among young people and among those in rural communities. While drug problems are widely considered an urban, inner-city issue, increasingly communities in rural and coastal areas are struggling with drug-related crime and deaths as new markets and channels for moving drugs across the country are opened up by organised crime groups and gangs.

Research has shown that, unlike in previous decades, these are not just the result of social, ad hoc sharing and transporting of drugs, but strategic and coordinated networks designed specifically to open new markets for drugs beyond city centres and expose more communities to markets of illicit materials, including drugs. The National Crime Agency (NCA) reports that the main driver of this “county lines” practice is fundamentally the demand and supply of controlled substances within the UK and the opportunity of “new” drug markets to make significant amounts of money. Analysis from the NCA indicates that an individual line can make profits in excess of £80,000 per year and can make thousands of pounds of profit from one single trip.

An easy target

One of the defining features now recognised as a key part of county lines drug trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerable and socially excluded people.This offers a degree of safety for those at the top of the network who avoid getting their hands dirty by delegating work to those further down the chain. Vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, care leavers or young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, are identified by county lines groups both as a target market for the drugs trade and for “recruitment”, involving them in the storage, transportation or selling of drugs in these new sites. This means that, on the whole, these groups are being disproportionately impacted. Many often don’t see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality. Commentators and practitioners have stressed that an urgent and powerful response to safeguard these groups is needed.

A 2017 report from the Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity. It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation or ‘county lines’. In March 2018, the Children’s Society published the second edition of Criminal exploitation and County Lines: A toolkit for working with children and young people. It summarised the risks to children and young people who become involved in county lines as including:

  • physical injuries: risk of serious violence and death
  • emotional and psychological trauma
  • sexual violence: sexual assault, rape, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation/revenge/punishment, internally inserting drugs
  • debt bondage – young people and families being ‘in debt’ to the exploiters; which is used to control the young person
  • neglect and basic needs not being met
  • living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments
  • tiredness and sleep deprivation: the child is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night
  • poor attendance and/or attainment at school/college/university

These challenges are also faced by other groups of vulnerable adults who are targeted in the same way. But while vulnerable children are subject to a compulsory referral process in relation to suspected exploitation, adults must consent to being referred, which research has suggested may be impacting the reported numbers of victims. This in turn indicates that the true number of vulnerable adults being exploited may be significantly higher.

Tackling county lines by working together

Partnership working between services which come into contact both with the county lines gangs and with the vulnerable people they exploit has been shown to be critical to facilitating an effective response and halting the spread and further development of county lines networks. However, it has also been highlighted that traditional approaches and mechanisms used to identify and safeguard vulnerable groups, particularly children, are no longer sufficient in the context of county lines child criminal exploitation (CCE), and that new guidance is needed to support practitioners in this field.

In September 2018 the National County Lines Coordination Centre was launched to crack down on drug gangs. The multi-agency team of experts from the National Crime Agency (NCA), police officers and regional organised crime units are working together, along with other partners in local areas, to build a national picture of the complexity and scale of the threat.

At a local level, pilot projects in several London boroughs, including Hackney, Islington and Lambeth and in other trial areas outside of London, such as Kent and Merseyside, have taken place. Evidence has shown that frontline services across the board play a key role in helping to identify and support those people at risk of exploitation from county lines gangs – not just police and prison service staff – but healthcare workers, social workers, teachers and youth work professionals from the public and third sectors. Working together as multi-agency partnerships, while challenging, results in the best outcomes and opportunities for intervention and support for children and vulnerable people who are at risk. It is essential that staff receive a high standard of training and that they themselves are given the time and resources needed to try and forge effective partnerships which in turn will help to identify and intervene with those at risk of gang exploitation more effectively and at an earlier stage.

Partnerships which include opportunities for staff training and guidance from third sector specialists like St Giles Trust and Safer London make use of the significant knowledge and experience held within the third sector and help local authorities to apply these to their own statutory responses. They also encourage the sharing of effective practice and knowledge on tackling exploitation across the whole of the UK, which is helping to create a more effective and joined-up approach to tackling child exploitation and the links to county lines practices. Maintaining this sharing of knowledge and skills across different sectors and professions will continue to be vital in helping to develop practice and responses that can react more effectively to exploitation in the future.

Providing a safe place and a route forward for victims of county lines exploitation

In a county lines context, better safeguarding and early intervention practices with vulnerable people serves a dual purpose: preventing the person involved being exploited and engaging in criminal activity; and disrupting the county lines operation, and subsequently the flow of illicit materials into our communities. The networks are, by their own design, elusive and hard to trace. Those involved are threatened and often trapped in roles within the network which they would otherwise be unable to escape on their own. Providing a safe space for these exploited people is an important first step in the process of tackling county lines and organised criminal networks.

Local authorities are working closely with partners to try and provide this support at a local and very personal level while trying to fit into the wider strategic process of the national response to county lines. These national and local responses are both vital in tackling county lines and the exploitation that comes with it.


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“For many children we are the first point of contact”: supporting children’s mental health in schools

A 2018 evidence review from Public Health England reported that one in 10 young people have some form of diagnosable mental health condition. This, the report suggests, equates to as many as 850,000 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health disorder in the UK. It also reported that half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14, and children with persistent mental health problems face unequal chances in life.

Research has also highlighted the impact of “key factors” like poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including emotional trauma, abuse or neglect (which people living in higher areas of deprivation are more likely to experience) on an individual’s chance of developing a mental illness. However, an additional factor often cited in surveys around child mental health and wellbeing is the impact of school, including exam stress, and bullying. Mental ill health has also been found to have an impact on attainment, behaviour and a child’s ability to learn. As a result, teachers are often part of the front line of supporting adults for children who are suffering from mental ill health, with increasing pressure being placed on teachers and schools to identify and signpost children to other services.

Schools, as well as teachers,  are increasingly becoming a focus for the delivery of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in their community. Often schools are at the centre of their local community, so it is logistically convenient to coordinate services there; it can for some be a less intimidating or stigmatising environment than attending a clinic at a GP surgery, for example. School is the primary developmental space that children encounter after their family, and children’s learning and development and their mental health are often interrelated, so it makes sense for teachers to take an interest in terms of attainment and progress in learning. In December 2017, the Department of Health and Department for Education (DfE) published the Green Paper Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision which highlighted the role of schools as key in promoting a positive message about mental health and wellbeing among school age children and young people.

Good work is already being done, but how can we do more?

Research has shown that there is already a lot of good and effective practice being done in schools around children’s mental health. Many schools already work in partnership with local health teams to provide in house CAMHS support in the form of mental health nurses and social workers who are posted on site for children to access. One of the major recommendations in a 2018 Audit Scotland report on child mental health in Scotland was to encourage more of this type of partnership working. The report stressed the importance of joint working between public services if child mental health is to be improved, and where possible to include as wide a spectrum of public services in the delivery of CAMHS support, including criminal justice and housing practitioners, as well as health and social care and education staff.

In some schools senior pupils and designated members of staff are being offered mental health first aid training, and wear lanyards to help students identify them should they ever need to talk to someone. While it is important – particularly for students who participate in mental health first aid programmes – to be made aware of the challenges the role may entail, it can be a rewarding experience for young people to participate in and can also be a vital in-road to support for some students who would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking to a member of staff.

Other programmes like those developed by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, Centre for Mental Health and the ICE PACK and Kitbag tools (which have been used widely in UK schools) look at resilience building  and promoting coping mechanisms among young people, as well as encouraging the creation of trusting relationships which focus on nurturing and normalising mental illness to encourage children and young people to feel comfortable discussing their feelings and thoughts. These programmes also integrate early intervention and prevention approaches, hoping to identify children and young people who are suffering from mental illness as early as possible and signpost them to appropriate support.

The specific role of teachers

Teachers need to remember that they are not health or social care professionals and that – as much as they would like to completely solve all of the problems of their students – they can only do what they can, and that is enough.

It is also very important for teachers to practise what they preach in as much as teacher self-care is as important as signposting children and young people who are struggling with mental health issues. A 2016 survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found almost half of teachers had sought help from their doctor for stress-related condition. Teacher stress and burnout and those leaving the profession due to conditions like stress do not help to create an environment that is supportive of good mental health in the classroom. Teacher wellbeing is so important and building their own resilience is one way that teachers can start to embed good mental health in their practice. If you are doing it yourself it will be easier to help and show children how to do it if they come to you for advice!

Teachers simply being there and offering a safe space and first point of contact for many children is important. Listening and signposting can be so valuable for those pupils taking the first step and teachers should not be put off by any personal perception of a lack of expertise in mental health – a small amount of knowledge or understanding of what to do next is more than enough. In some respects, teachers should feel almost privileged that a student has chosen to come to them, someone they feel they can trust and talk to.

A poll conducted as part of a webinar held for educational practitioners found that rather than requiring more information about mental illness, what teachers actually wanted was more practical examples of how to apply support in the classroom and how to embed mental health into their teaching and the learning of their students.

A unique opportunity

Schools and teachers are on the front line of public services and have a unique opportunity through regular contact with children to help to build and promote resilience among pupils, and embedding this within the whole school can be an effective way of ensuring pupils feel the benefit without being singled out. Taking nurturing approaches to learning and teaching, and promoting the creation of trusting relationships is key to some of the already effective practice going on in schools. Sharing the learning and best practice that is already happening will be vital to ensuring that support for children suffering from mental ill health improves and adapts to changing needs in the future.


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Parental capacity to change: a new approach to child protection assessments

“Current assessments focus more on harm to the child and its causation than on capacity to change”

The assessments undertaken by social workers on children who are on the edge of care are significant. Very few, if any, assessments are straight forward; many cases are complex, with children and their families facing multiple social barriers, poverty, crime, addiction or mental health issues.

paper family on hand

Very little standardisation of practice exists and the pressure and scrutiny on social workers and their professional judgement can sometimes be unbearable. Increasingly there has been a development in the literature around child protection which suggests that social workers’ assessments should reflect the complexities of family life and should acknowledge efforts of parents to positively adapt their lifestyle in order to allow them to care for their child.

The parental capacity to change, as well as the capacity to parent effectively should be considered in these assessments.

Assessing a combination of motivation and ability, professionals it has been suggested, should work with parents to assess their readiness to accept or deny the need for change when completing their assessments. Provided that change can occur in an appropriate time frame for the child in question, professionals can work with the parents to achieve the best outcome for the child remaining with parents where possible, and returning to parents when possible, if additional action to change is necessary.

bambole di stoffa

C-Change Approach.
There has been a push of late to encourage social services to look at the needs of the parent as much as the needs of the child, and to offer support to families throughout the period the child is with them, particularly when the child has been returned to them after a period in social care.

This approach is about developing relationships between social workers and families and creating realistic, clear and accessible targets for parents, to show their change process, and progress,  and to build an understanding of what is expected of them, with the social worker acting as an assessor but also as a motivator and a facilitator to change. Plans should be long term to create stability and a solid goal, but should also be short term enough to show regular results to keep morale high and to regularly show positive progression.

This new long term approach seeks to change behaviour in parents, but evidencing behaviour change can be difficult. Previously, research suggested that parents changed in part, so as to re-gain custody of their children, but that after time they often relapse which led to the child being taken back into care. This inconsistent approach is something which government and the third sector are trying to address through relationship building and long term consistent and implemented strategies, although it is becoming increasingly difficult given the increased demands on budgets and calls for greater efficiency within the sector.

As a result, guidance on the C-Change model emphasises that there must also be tangible consequences for those who fail to comply or who relapse – it is about altering a mindset and a behaviour – and rewards should be agreed for milestones and achievements in the same way as consequences should be in place for non-compliance.

Image by Jerry Wong, via Creative Commons License

Image by xcode via Creative Commons

Shaking the negativity
The literature which considers parental capacity to change as a way to approach social work assessment highlights a common trend – the apparent failure of social services to provide sufficient support to parents and children once the child has been returned. This in turn, the research suggests, leads to more children being taken back into care.

This is often viewed negatively by the media, who are on the one hand critical of social services for being too quick to intervene and break up family units by removing children from their parents’ care, but on the other are highly critical of their practices and their reluctance or delay in removing children from abusive or distressing situations. This negativity translates into how they are viewed by the public.

Perhaps adopting this model of partnership and change promotion can be a way forward for children and their parents and a way for social workers to reform their practices to create a more standardised transparent way of working where they can share ideas and practice, work in partnership, and be recognised for the good they do and the safeguarding role they play for vulnerable people, rather than the criticism of their inconsistent working or un-compassionate approach, as some make out.


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