County lines: protecting children and vulnerable people from exploitation

County lines is the police term for urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns.

It is a form of criminal exploitation and involves gangs and organised drug networks grooming and exploiting children to sell drugs. Often these children are made to travel across counties, and they use dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ to supply drugs – this is where the term ‘county lines’ comes from.

This is a major safeguarding issue and is happening in Wiltshire and across the country. Professionals and the wider community need to be able to spot the signs and know how to respond to and report concerns.


What are the signs of criminal exploitation and county lines?

  • Returning home late, staying out all night or going missing
  • Being found in areas away from home
  • Increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
  • Being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
  • Unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
  • Unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewelry
  • Increasingly disruptive or aggressive behavior
  • Using sexual, drug-related or violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Coming home with injuries or looking particularly disheveled
  • Having hotel cards or keys to unknown places

Watch this video to find out how children can become criminally exploited :


What should you do if you are concerned about a child?

Any practitioner working with a child who they think may be at risk of criminal exploitation should follow their local safeguarding guidance and refer concerns to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) mash@wiltshire.gov.uk or 0300456 0108.

If you believe a person is in immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police on 999.

If there is no immediate risk, you can also share information or concerns by contact the police on 101 if you want or complete their Partner Agency information Sharing Form.


Toolkits for Professionals:

Children & Young People Trafficked for the Purpose of Criminal Exploitation in Relation to County Lines – A toolkit for professionals

The Home Office has produced County Lines Guidance and information posters/leaflets: County Lines: protecting vulnerable people from exploitation and information leaflets for the private sector

Resources for parents: There are also resources for parents provided by the Children’s Society.


How are we working together to tackle criminal exploitation in Wiltshire?

There is a Child Exploitation and Missing Sub group that meets regularly to ensure partners are working together and there is a shared strategy and approach.

At an operational level The Vulnerable Adolescents Contextual Safeguarding Panel (VACS) has been established to ensure multi-agency information and intelligence is gathered and shared to identify children and young people who are vulnerable to exploitation. The group map hotspots, trends and risks in missing episodes, identify victim and perpetrator information and target criminal activity involving children including County Lines.

In addition, Vulnerable Adolescent Risk Management Meetings (VARMM) are held when groups of young people at risk of exploitation are identified via the Vulnerable Adolescents Contextual Safeguarding Panel (VACS) or MASH. They are chaired at Service Manager level and are multi-agency meetings. Find out more here: Learn more about Vulnerable Adolescent Risk Management Meetings


VARMM – flowchart of activity

Read our  Child Exploitation and Missing Children Strategy for 2019 – 2021, which sets out how we will work together to keep children and young people in our county safe from exploitation and harm.  It also provides information about what we know locally about the current level of threat and those most at risk.

Read the updated Wiltshire and Swindon Children Missing from Home and Care protocol



Further resources and guidance
can be found here: County Lines resources and guidance Children’s Society

Home Office County Lines Guidance

County Lines posters and leaflets

Resources for Private Security

Resources for Taxi and Private Hire

Resources for Bus and Coach Companies

Resources for Train Operating Companies

Resources for Private Landlords and Letting Agents