View Working Together View Working Together

1.4.7 Child Criminal Exploitation

This chapter contains information on risk factors / indicators for Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE). It also explains the process for referring on any concerns, and the action that will follow to safeguard the children and young people concerned. It was added to the West Yorkshire Procedures in December 2018.



  • Modern Slavery Act 2016;
  • The Children Act 2004 (Sections 10 and 11);
  • Working Together to Safeguard Children;
  • Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014;
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003.



  1. What is Child Criminal Exploitation?
  2. Gangs and County Lines – Definitions
  3. Identifying when a Child or Young Person is being Criminally Exploited
  4. What Needs to Happen if you are Concerned that a Child or Young Person is at Risk of Criminal Exploitation?

1. What is Child Criminal Exploitation?

Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) is increasingly being recognised as a major factor behind crime in communities in the UK; it also victimises vulnerable young people and leaves them at risk of harm. Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults – County Lines Guidance (Home Office) defines Criminal Exploitation as follows:

Child Criminal Exploitation is common in county lines and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

CCE often occurs without the victim being aware that they are being exploited and involves children and young people being encouraged, cajoled or threatened to carry out crime for the benefit of others. In return they are offered friendship or peer acceptance; they may also be given cigarettes, drugs (especially cannabis), alcohol or even food and accommodation.

Children as young as 10 or 11 have been groomed to enter gangs and commit crime on behalf of older criminals. Such young people are being exploited and, by being persuaded, threatened or lured into carrying out illegal activities, often with the promise of something they desire as a reward, they can be incredibly vulnerable.

Victims of CCE are often fearful of getting into trouble themselves – as a result of the illegal nature of the very actions they have been exploited into carrying out - so it can also especially difficult for these young people to come forward and speak out about their situation or ask for help.

Gangs specifically target vulnerable children and those who do not have support networks for the purpose of criminal exploitation. Children with special educational needs, mental health problems or disabilities are known to be purposely targeted. Gangs also look for emotional vulnerability, such as children experiencing problems at home, who have absent/busy parents or have experienced bereavement. The gangs seek to fill that emotional gap for the child and become ‘their family’.

Male children are most commonly exploited but female children are also used and exploited by gangs. It is thought that 15-16 years is the most common age for children to be exploited by these gangs but there are reports of children below the age of 12 years being used. Gangs are increasingly looking to recruit ‘clean skins’ i.e. children with no previous criminal record who are unlikely to be stopped by the police, including children from white, middle class backgrounds and from further afield.

Gangs target Looked After Children, particularly those in residential children’s homes and children in pupil referral units. Children who have been placed out of their home area are particularly vulnerable.

Gangs often use threats, coercion and violence to force children to do what they want. Gang members will be punished for making mistakes or failing to meet drugs sales targets. The punishments are extremely violent such as stabbing or anal injuries caused by jagged objects and acid attacks. Gangs may also trick children into getting indebted to them, for example, by giving them a mobile phone only to later demand repayment for the cost of the phone. The child will then be in ‘debt bondage’ to the gang, owing it labour or services as security for the repayment for the debt or other obligation.

Peer grooming is common and takes place in schools and via social media. Music videos on YouTube are used to glamorise gangs and to draw in children from wider social and geographical areas. These methods can lead to children firmly believing they have made an active choice to join the gangs and to deny that they have been exploited and, at the same time, leave them so terrified that they will do anything they are told. See also Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence (Catch 22, 2017).

The criminal exploitation of children includes a combination of:

  • Pull factors: children performing tasks for others resulting in them gaining accommodation, food, gifts, status or a sense of safety, money or drugs; often the hook is through the perpetrator supplying Class B drugs such as cannabis to the child or young person;
  • Push factors: children escaping from situations where their needs are neglected and there is exposure to unsafe individuals, this could include where there is high family conflict or the absence of a primary attachment figure;
  • Control: ‘Brain washing’, violence and threats of violence by those exploiting the child particularly when the child or young person is identified by the police, they are expected to take full responsibility for the offences for which they are charged – i.e. possession and supply of illegal substances.

The majority of children or young people who enter into this form of exploitation appear to do so ‘willingly,’ however their involvement is indicative of coercion or desperation rather than choice. Many young people do not initially recognise that they are being exploited or that they are at risk. While the majority of children who are vulnerable to criminal exploitation are male however; the possibilities of female involvement should not be dismissed.

It is important to note that perpetrators of CCE may themselves be children who are criminally exploited and that the victims of CCE may also be at risk of becoming perpetrators.

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a form of CCE, and where identified should be responded to in accordance with the Safeguarding Children and Young People from Child Sexual Exploitation: Policy, Procedures and Guidance.

2. Gangs and County Lines - Definitions

Definition of a Gang

The definitions below are taken from “Dying to Belong”.

A gang is a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who:

  1. See themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;
  2. Engage in a range of criminal activity and violence;
  3. Identify with or lay claim over territory;
  4. Have some form of identifying structural feature; and
  5. Are in conflict with other, similar, gangs.

A gang member: is someone who has self-identified themselves as being a member of a gang e.g. through verbal statements, correspondence, graffiti etc and this is corroborated by the police, partner agencies or community intelligence.

A gang associate: is someone who offends with gang members; or who is associated (by the police, partner agencies or community intelligence) with gang members; or who has displayed, through conduct or behaviour, a specific desire or intent to become a member of a gang.

Definition of ‘county lines’

County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons (Home Office).

County lines involves CCE 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 (this is known as 'cuckooing').

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.

A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A young person might exhibit some of the indicators below, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs:

  • 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.

3. Identifying when a Child or Young Person is being Criminally Exploited

It may not be easy to identify that a child is the victim of criminal exploitation. However, there are a number of indicators of concern which should alert professionals to this possibility:

  • They have been arrested for possession and intent to supply of significant quantities of drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine;
  • They were arrested away from their own home area;
  • They were arrested on public transport, particularly a train;
  • They were arrested in a cuckooed address [1];
  • They are Looked After by the local authority, particularly if they are placed in residential care;
  • They were carrying a weapon when arrested;
  • They have an unexplained injury, possibly caused by a knife;
  • They were arrested with or are accompanied by older males or females.

If a young person is arrested for drugs offences a long way from home in an area where they have no local connections and no obvious means of getting home, this should trigger questions about their welfare and they should potentially be considered as victims of child criminal exploitation and trafficking rather than as an offender. Agencies also need to be proactive and make contact with statutory services in the young person’s home area to share information.

[1] A cuckooed address is one which has been taken over by force or coercion, usually by an organised gang.

4. What Needs to Happen if you are Concerned that a Child or Young Person is at Risk of Criminal Exploitation?

The most effective method to prevent children becoming criminally exploited is early intervention and prevention. This enables preventative services to be implemented at an early stage to support the young person and their family to make positive life choices and distance themselves from serious and organised crime.

The child's specific needs with regard to the risk of CCE must be acted on immediately and specifically.

If a practitioner identifies that a child is involved in, or at risk of involvement in CCE they should respond following their individual agency’s Safeguarding and Child Protection Procedures, along with any specific local guidance in relation to identifying and responding to CCE.

Concerns should be referred to the relevant Children’s Social Care Services who will undertake enquiries and commence a Single Assessment if there are concerns that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, harm. The Single Assessment should cover both needs and risk factors and be holistic in focus. If the child already has an open case, any information received by Children’s Social Care Services will be shared with the allocated social worker.

If the child or young person is not assessed as suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, agencies should look to provide support and intervention either within their own agency or in partnership with other agencies as appropriate. Practitioners may wish to seek support and advice from specialist agencies such as Community Safety Partnerships, Youth Offending Teams, the police and voluntary and community organisations.

Plans for intervention/support should be completed within a multi-agency setting and should seek to address the 4 P’s:

  • Prepare – What can be put into place to prepare the young person and family to manage the effects of criminal exploitation suffered/experienced;
  • Prevent – What can be put into place to prevent further criminal exploitation;
  • Protect – What external safeguards can be put into place; and
  • Pursue (prosecute) – What action can be taken against the perpetrators?

All agencies and the caregivers need to consider how they can help protect and reduce the risk to the child. It is likely that involvement in crime is lucrative for the child and that they will be fearful and/or protective of the exploiters. It is therefore unlikely that they will engage in interventions that aim to reduce their involvement. A plan which mostly relies on the engagement of the child will not be robust enough to keep them safe.

Evidence shows positive change can be driven by a good relationship between the child and professionals. As described, these children may not consider themselves as exploited, may enjoy some aspects of the lifestyle they are undertaking or may be fearful of repercussions from exploiters if they were to stop. It is important therefore that professionals take a proactive approach to engaging with these children.

Within the support plan, consideration should also be given to the safety of the family as a whole.

The plan should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely and should clearly state who is responsible for which action.

Once completed, the plan should be uploaded onto the relevant recording system and be distributed to the caregivers and relevant professionals within 72hours.

The plan should be reviewed at least every 3 months. Therefore, it is not necessary to try and address every risk factor within one plan. It is likely that the first plan will include initial safety steps (to protect) whereas subsequent plans will include steps to reduce risk (prevent).

There should always be an up to date plan if the child is assessed as at high risk of harm or is suspected of being currently exploited. New risks may transpire within multi agency meetings. If there are already established multi-agency meetings taking place, the preference would be to use these meetings rather than arrange additional ones to review the plan.