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Child Criminal Exploitation

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What is Child Criminal Exploitation?

Criminal exploitation is child abuse where children and young people are manipulated and coerced into committing crimes.

Organised criminal gangs are a group for whom involvement in crime is for personal gain (financial or otherwise). These gangs use grooming techniques and other methods to get children and young people into their gangs to carry out criminal activity.

Not all Child Criminal Exploitation involves gangs. An early example of this was written about in Oliver Twist when Oliver was forced to break into the house by an individual. This could include a relative or family friend getting a child to shop lift.

Children and young people are targeted because they are often less suspicious and are seen as more expendable, with the justification that they get lighter sentences than adults.

There are many reasons why children and young people become involved with gangs, these can include:

  • Peer pressure, wanting to fit in
  • Feel respected and important
  • Protected from bullies
  • Make money and other rewards
  • Gain status and feel powerful
  • Don’t feel they have a future anyway.

Some of the risks to the child when they become involved in criminal exploitation include:

  • Being arrested, including for crimes committed by other members of their gang which they have not directly committed (law of joint enterprise)
  • Subject to threats, blackmail, violence and emotional abuse. Including threats towards family and friends (including threat of reporting to social services so they’ll be taken away from family, adding fear of social services).
  • Abusing drugs, alcohol and other substances
  • Being exploited to carry out further crimes
  • Not being able to leave or cut of ties with the person or gang
  • Risk of physical harm (including rape and sexual abuse) or being killed
  • Long term impact on employment options as some roles are not accessible to someone with a criminal record.

A child who has committed a crime as a result of criminal exploitation may not be seen as a victim, but as a perpetrator of criminal activity.

The Children’s Society have produced an Appropriate Language Guide in relation to Child Exploitation for professionals.


Grooming is when someone (often an adult or older young person) builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Any child is at risk of being groomed.

Anybody can be a groomer, someone of any age, gender or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time. Groomers can sometimes build a relationship with the family to make them appear trustworthy and authoritative.

A child or young person might be recruited into a gang that wishes to criminally exploit them because of where they live, who their family is, or because they come into contact with an older member of the gang. They might join because they don’t think they have another option, because they feel they need protection or because of the ‘gifts’ that they are given.

Increasingly, especially during the Covid-19 restrictions, grooming has gone online. When a child is groomed online, groomers often hide who they are by sending photos or videos of other people. They may be grooming multiple children and young people at once. The relationship can take different forms, it can be romantic, authority, mentor or a persistent figure. They often use the same sites, games and apps as the children and spend time learning about the child’s interests and use that to build a relationship – utilising in game chats, social media, email, messaging and voice and video chats.

Whilst any child can be groomed, there are some that are more at risk – children in care; children with disabilities (or care for someone with disabilities); or children who are neglected. Groomers will exploit any vulnerability.

The NSPCC have identified some tactics that groomers use:

  • Pretending to be younger
  • Buying gifts
  • Taking them on trips, outings or holidays
  • Giving advice or showing understanding
  • Giving attention
  • Threatening the child’s safety or that of their family and friends
  • Isolating the child from their family and friends, making the child more dependent on them and giving them more power and control
  • Use blackmail/secrets to control, frighten and intimidate the child.

The child is unlikely to understand that they have been groomed. They often have complicated feelings, such as loyalty, admiration, love as well as fear, distress and confusion.

Grooming can have a devastating impact on the child in both the short and long term, for example: struggling with anxiety; ongoing trust issues for future relationships; post-traumatic stress; self harm; eating disorders; suicidal thoughts; alcohol and drug problems; and feelings of shame and guilt leading to anger or withdrawal. Further information can be found here.

County Lines

County Lines is the name given to a business model which exploits young people and young adults (18-25 year old), into moving drugs using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. Children as young as 6 years old have been exploited into carrying drugs for gangs. This can involve children being trafficked away from their home area, staying in accommodation, and selling and manufacturing drugs. It is also being used for child sexual exploitation where drugs are likely to be involved. If a child has been trafficked for the purpose of criminal exploitation, then they are a victim of abuse (see safeguarding).

Some of the signs of possible involvement:

  • Being secretive about how they spend their time
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Having money or new things like clothes and mobile phones
  • Underage drinking or drug taking
  • Being upset, withdrawn or distressed
  • Sexualised behaviour, or an understanding of sex that is not age appropriate
  • Spending more time away from home or missing for periods of time
  • Unexplained injuries and refusing to seek medical help
  • Committing crimes such as shop lifting or vandalism
  • Carrying weapons.

As a result of the shift towards a criminal business model it is questionable whether the term ‘gang’ remains the correct reference for this type of criminal behaviour. It is therefore important that practitioners are not dismissive of county lines involvement if there is no gang related link and instead there should be a focus on the signs, signals and behaviour of those they are working with.

  • Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out the offences of slavery, servitude and forced compulsory labour in section 1, and human trafficking in section 2. Section 45 states the circumstances in which a person is not guilty of offence which includes “the person does that act as a direct consequence of the person being, or having been a victim of slavery or a victim of relevant exploitation…”. The Act provides the legislative framework to enable the effective prosecution and conviction of perpetrators of modern slavery (including criminal exploitation).
  • Serious Crime Act 2015 provides the legal offence of participating in the activities of an organised crime group and the preventative Serious Crime Prevention Orders, as well as strengthening on cyber-crime, gang injunctions and other measures to disrupt and halt crime. The Act also amended the statutory definition of what comprises a gang – consists of at least three people and can be identified by others as a group.
  • Criminal Finances Act 2017 provides powers to tackle money laundering, corruption and recover the proceeds of crime.
  • Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 covers a range of offences including possession, supply and production.
  • Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Criminal Justice Act 1998 may be appropriate for County Lines and other gangs as they provide offences involving offensive weapons.
  • Firearms Act 1968 covers the offence concerning firearms, shotguns and other weapons, their components and ammunition.
  • Offences against the Person Act 1861 covers offences such as common assault and attempted murder.
  • Policing and Crime Act 2009 provides provisions for injunctions to prevent gang-related violence and drug dealing activity against an individual
  • Crime and Disorder Act 1998 Statutory bodies have a statutory. responsibility to do all they reasonably can to prevent crime and disorder in their area and share information to protect communities from serious and organised crime.
  • Children’s Act 1989 and 2004 outlines the Statutory requirement for working with children and families to ensure there is co-ordinated approach to safeguarding.
  • Trafficking People for Exploitation Regulations 2013 protects those trafficked from criminal exploitations and puts in measures to protect victims.
  • Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides a range of measures that may be linked to gang behaviour and Criminal Behaviour Orders.
  • Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced the Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders regulations, which compel mobile network operators to close down mobile phone lines and/or handsets used in drug dealing.
  • Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 sets out the statutory duty to safeguard children at risk. The Wales Safeguarding Procedures provide additional information in regard to this.

Social Care Wales: Safeguarding Awareness Virtual training for professionals who work with young people

National County Lines Coordinating Centre: information videos

The Children’s Society (YouTube): Stages of Child Criminal Exploitation

West Yorkshire Police (YouTube): Do you know the signs of child criminal exploitation?

Horsham District Council (YouTube): It’s not just you – Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines Drug Running

Useful Links

National Crime Agency – County Lines

Visit the Website 

Home Office: Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults – County Lines Guidance (September 2018)

View the Guidance

Home Office: Child exploitation disruption toolkit

View the Toolkit

Ministry of Justice: County Lines Exploitation – practice guidance for Youth Offending Teams and frontline practitioners

View the Guidance

Wales Safeguarding Procedures: Safeguarding children from Child Criminal Exploitation

View the Procedures

Welsh Government: Keeping children and young people safe – Safeguarding guidance for practitioners working with children (up to the age of 18)

View the Guidance

NSPCC: Criminal exploitation and gangs

Visit the Website

The Children Society: Child criminal exploitation and county lines

Visit the Website

Catch 22: What we do

Visit the Website

Help and Support

For victims, families and concerned people

Call 999 if a child is at immediate risk or call 101 if you think a crime has been committed, or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online.

Report to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection to report grooming.

Child Safeguarding services are available in each Local Authority across Wales (see safeguarding).

Childline can talk to children about grooming, whether it is happening now or in the past. They can be contacted 24/7 on 0800 1111 it is free and confidential, or they can be contacted online.

The Children Society work with those who have been exploited so that they are treated as victims and not criminals. Working to rebuild their trust and to try to ensure that they are not susceptible to being targeted again.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a single framework centred on a multi-agency approach to victim identification and referral to appropriate support. Police, Immigration, Local Authorities, and some non-government organisations can refer suspected victims to the Single Competent Authority (SCA) for a decision. The SCA is part of the Home Office. Referral to the NRM requires consent for adults, but is not required for those under the age of 18.

St Giles Trust offer specialist services to help young people make a safe and sustained exit from county lines involvement. Caseworkers offer both practical and emotional support to the young person and their family to help address any issue which might be driving involvement in county lines. Child Criminal Exploitation – St Giles (

Catch 22 work with children and young people of any age to help get them out of situations they are worried about, including child criminal exploitation, specifically county lines. Find support and read more about their services online.

Tackling county lines – and the supply gangs responsible for high levels of violence exploitation and abuse of vulnerable adults and children – is a priority for UK law enforcement. To enhance the law enforcement response, a multi-agency county lines coordination centre has been established, bringing together officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA), police and regional organised crime units to develop the national intelligence picture, prioritise action against the most serious offenders, and engage with partners across government, including in the health, welfare and education spheres, to tackle the wider issues. In addition to helping the NCA and policing partners to work together more effectively and deliver a more comprehensive response to the county lines threat, the centre assists with the development of a whole-system, multi-agency approach which is vital to ensuring that vulnerable people are identified and safeguarded, understanding factors behind demand for drugs, and recovering proceeds of crime.