The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 was closely followed by substantial media speculation (Eastwood et al. 2020; Grierson and Walker 2020; Pidd 2020; Tidy 2020), as well as reports from frontline practitioners (National Youth Agency 2020; Wedlock and Melina 2020), that lockdown restrictions imposed to stem rates of infection were having a clear impact on ‘County Lines’ drug distribution and child criminal exploitation in the UK. National lockdowns and other restrictions limited people’s capacity to move freely without creating suspicion, and reports suggested that the County Lines distribution model, which typically relies on the transportation of drugs and money between larger metropolitan and provincial or coastal areas, had been disrupted during periods of national lockdown (Caluori 2020).
The perceived impact of the pandemic also extended beyond the business side of drug supply. Reductions in reports of missing children were initially taken as a sign that fewer young people were being exploited through County Lines (Caluori 2020), while other reports hypothesised that drug distribution networks may have instead developed a variety of new approaches and supply tactics to avoid detection by police (Caluori 2020; Pidd 2020; Saggers 2020a, 2020b). Youth justice, youth work and child protection practitioners all outlined concerns that lockdown restrictions may also have made some young people more vulnerable, and in particular increasingly susceptible to grooming and criminal exploitation through County Lines (National Youth Agency 2020; Wedlock and Melina 2020).
In this paper, we seek to inform efforts to safeguard children and vulnerable adults, as the impacts of Covid-19 continue to unfold. Based on interviews with practitioners whose work intersects with County Lines and Child Criminal Exploitation, we assess possible shifts in County Lines offending patterns resulting from measures introduced in response to the pandemic, as well as their impact on efforts to detect, prevent and combat crime, and on the safeguarding of victims of exploitation. The paper attempts to understand how front-line professionals have experienced and perceive the impact of the pandemic on their work and those they engage within the context of County Lines and child criminal exploitation.
County lines (CL)
The Independent review by Dame Carol Black (Black 2021) estimated that the UK’s illicit drugs market is worth £9.4 billion a year. Substantial national attention has been paid to the evolution of the UK’s drug markets, largely centring on the development and expansion of drug supply networks from urban centres into provincial towns, a process termed ‘County Lines’ (Harding 2020b).
Specifically, the issue of ‘County Lines’ refers to the migration of illegal drugs from urban to rural and coastal areas. Drugs are often transported across different ‘county’ jurisdictions using a branded mobile phone ‘line’, and is often recognised as involving the exploitation of young people and/or vulnerable adults to move and hold drugs and cash (National Crime Agency 2015). The mobile phone is key to CL. Dealing networks typically use mobile phones to establish a database of active drug users, using the phone as a ‘deal line’ which connects new customers to the ‘out of town’ dealers operating in their area (Coomber and Moyle 2018; Harding 2020a, 2020b).
While the term ‘County Lines’ (henceforth CL) has been in use since at least 2015 (National Crime Agency 2015), there remains significant debate (Spicer et al. 2020; Turner et al. 2019) about its inception. Some suggest that the model emerged in response to the saturation of drug availability in major metropolitan areas (Robinson et al. 2019; Windle and Briggs 2015), where a ‘growing number of dealers’ is not matched by growing numbers of dependant users (Ruggiero 2010, 51). Research by Coomber and Moyle (2018) goes further, and suggests that the motivations for ‘outreach supply’ methods like CL are associated with increased opportunities for profit (Van Daele and Vander Beken 2010), and the presence of geographically distant areas where there is a captive market of addicted drug users which are selected to avoid organized competition that might be present in the dealers’ home locales (Windle and Briggs 2015; National Crime Agency 2015, 2016).
Since becoming a national priority in 2018, CL has been officially situated as a form of organised crime. This narrative, reinforced in the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy (HM Government 2018), placed gangs and organised criminal networks at the centre of rising levels of violence, exploitation, and CL activity. In the policing response that followed to reduce CL and its associated harms, territorial police forces have been supported by regional organised crime units (ROCUs) and by the National Crime Agency. In their most recent strategic assessment, the National Crime Agency (2019) associated CL with increases in both gun and knife crime, “an expansion of gangs and organised crime outside of urban centres”, and the increase in the “coercive control and exploitation of vulnerable populations for the purposes of drug dealing” (McLean et al. 2019, 4).
Official definitions of organised crime are vague. The UK’s Serious Crime Act 2015 identifies an organised crime group as that which (1) “has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities” and (2) “consists of three of more people who agree to act together to further that purpose”. Yet the extent to which many CL networks are organised is contested. In a ‘rapid appraisal’ of CL in a seaside town in Essex, Jaensch and South (2018: 1) asserted that the gangs involved in CL presented themselves as a “hybrid between traditional street gangs and organised crime groups”, noting that those involved were “visible, known to police and operated at street level where organised criminals tend not to operate” (ibid, 13). While this may hold true for many of the networks involved in CL across the UK, the proliferation of the trafficking of children, the above-mentioned increase in gun and knife crime, as well as rising cases of money laundering and cybercrime (O’Hagan and Long 2019) suggest that CL activity does involve some elements of organised crime.
Indeed, Windle and Briggs (2015a): 1178) observed that drug dealing is separate to gang activity. However, due to the overlap between actors in gangs and CLs it can be hard to establish where a gang ends and where an organised crime group (OCG) begins (Densley, 2012: 44–45). Bonning and Cleaver (2020: 14) assert that gang membership is potentially more likely to be associated with being a perpetrator of violence, while association with county lines is more highly associated with being a victim of it.
The direct attribution of youth violence and drug market participation to gangs has however been contested as problematic (Densley 2011). It is contended that the ‘gang’ narrative continues to be used to legitimise the over-policing of black communities, and contributes to the differential treatment of young black men in the criminal justice system (Williams 2015). Williams also suggests (2015, 19) that the gang label ‘others’ specific groups and communities as problematic and requiring of police intervention. ‘Gang’ rhetoric fails to situate youth violence and CL within broader issues such as socio-economic inequalities, austerity policies and intensified social exclusion (Spicer 2020). The demographics of young people involved in CL suggests that many “come from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds” (Windle et al. 2020, 73). Thus, their participation in CL for either money or drugs may actually at times demonstrate a rational form of resilience to these life challenges. That is, young peoples’ involvement in CL can be less an attraction to a criminal lifestyle, but more a representation of their being “instrumental in providing shelter and sustenance for themselves” (Ellis 2018, 161).
Criminal exploitation in county lines
CL is also increasingly a concern for child welfare agencies, as reports suggest children aged as young as seven are being used as ‘runners’ to move and sell drugs in areas far away from their homes (Turner et al. 2019; Wroe 2019). The use of children in these operations offers distance and anonymity for dealers, who can manage the supply from their local areas without having to remain present in market locations themselves (National Crime Agency 2015). Adults are also known to be exploited as drug ‘runners’ and ‘commuters’, particularly in circumstances where existing drug users are controlled and exploited as ‘user dealers’ (Harding 2020a). There is also acknowledgement of sexual exploitation within some CL environments, particularly where females are involved (Robinson et al. 2019), or indeed through the practice of ‘plugging’ - where drugs are packed and inserted into bodily cavities for transportation (Williams and Finlay 2019; Reginelli et al. 2015).
Criminal exploitation through CL goes beyond the distribution and retrieval of illicit drugs and money, and includes wide range of criminal activities, such as the possession and concealment of weapons, the perpetration of violence (using knives and firearms), the harbouring of offenders, and providing false alibis for others. While these activities vary in terms of level of involvement and severity of offence, the individuals at the root of the criminal exploitation of children and young people are often conceptualised as organised criminals (individuals) and criminal gangs/groups (The Childrens Society 2019). HM Government (2018, 8) contends that child criminal exploitation
“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 into any criminal activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or (c) through violence or the threat of violence. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual.”
Existing research reveals that, despite their exploitation, young people often also exhibit agency and entrepreneurialism in their engagement with CL, seeing it as a way to earn money, gain kudos and maintain their identity with peers (Harding 2020a; Hesketh and Robinson 2019). However, the harms to those involved can be substantial, and they may experience threats to their lives, physical and psychological abuse, and increased involvement with the Criminal Justice System (UK Home Office 2018).
Understandings of child criminal exploitation and CL are still developing. There is a relatively small but growing field of academic literature (Coomber and Moyle 2018; Hesketh and Robinson 2019; Robinson et al. 2019; Spicer 2019; Stone 2018; Windle and Briggs 2015; Windle et al. 2020), in addition to government agency reports, threat assessments and guidance (HM Government 2018; National Crime Agency 2015, 2016, 2017), third sector evaluations (Caluori 2020; Hudek 2018; Rescue and Response 2020; Spicer 2019; Turner et al. 2019; Wroe 2019) and journalistic accounts (Daly 2017; Hymas 2020; Jones 2018) covering the issue.
The participation of children and young people is often facilitated through the offer of money, luxury consumer items, clothes, drugs and accommodation (Robinson et al. 2019; see also Rees 2011). Debt bondage may be used to maintain control of victims, in which drug debts are used to manipulate and coerce young people to participate in CL operations (Robinson et al. 2019). The centrality of money is also emphasised by Pinkney, who remarks that:
“Young people want things just like we as adults do. But they can’t afford it. They don’t have jobs, there is a lack of resources. CL, robbery, and fraud are quick ways to make money” (Craig Pinkney, quoted in Wedlock and Melina 2020, 53).
Windle, Moyle, and Coomber (2020, 4) offer that CL dealers seek to exploit children because they “represent a cheap, easily recruited workforce”. Young people exploited through CL often present with a number of vulnerabilities, including high rates of missing episodes, being looked after/in the care system, exclusion from mainstream education, and experiences of being victimised and/or having perpetrated serious youth violence - factors which are also associated with increased likelihood of criminal offending (Sturrock and Holmes 2015).
Some young peoples’ appearance as consensual participants in the illegal drug supply contributes to inconsistencies in current criminal justice responses to child criminal exploitation, and official rhetoric about treating children that are identified as involved as victims often does not translate into practice (Wedlock and Melina 2020, 66).
The CL model also often relies on the establishment of a local base, referred to as a ‘trap house’ (Turner et al. 2019). Borrowed from the street term for drug dealing (‘trapping’), these are often residential addresses owned, or rented, by individuals in the drug market area. Properties are subsequently taken over and used to package and distribute drugs – a process referred to as ‘cuckooing’, (Coomber and Moyle 2018; Stone 2018), “named after the nest invading tendencies of cuckoo birds” (Spicer et al. 2020, 2). Cuckooed victims may be specifically targeted, with CL networks seeking out properties belonging to vulnerable adults, such as those with existing addictions, physical disabilities, and severe mental health issues, and the elderly (NCA 2017). Like the criminal exploitation of children, cuckooing has also been framed as a form of modern slavery (Stone 2018).
County lines during the pandemic
The first national lockdown in March 2020 triggered an immediate drop in reported crime rates across England, with two notable exceptions: drug offences and domestic violence (National Police Chiefs’ Council 2020b). Reductions in violent crime in London, including knife and firearms offences, as well as homicides, were described as a “silver lining” of the pandemic (London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in Dodd 2020). In the capital, recorded knife crime fell by more than 50% and stab wounds among people under 25 by 69%, causing some to suggest that the pandemic was itself acting as a significant inhibiter of crime (Dodd 2020). A decrease in missing children reports (National Police Chiefs’ Council 2020b) were cited as possible evidence that exploitation linked to CL may have reduced during the lockdown (Caluori 2020). Others argued that the number of missing vulnerable children had in fact increased as safeguarding capacity was cut because of the pandemic (Townsend 2020). However, the overall picture is unclear, and changes in recorded incidence may have been a reflection of the pandemic’s impact on reporting behaviour, rather than an actual change in crime prevalence. Moreover, the increase in recorded drugs offences in England and Wales may be a representation of the re-orientation of policing resources towards such ‘visible’ street crimes, as police benefited from the availability of extra resources becoming available due to the curtailing of other policing activities, such as their monitoring of the night-time economy. (Langton et al. 2021).
There remains an absence of clarity regarding Covid-19 attributable shifts in CL behaviour (and in the relative risk it poses to children and young people), reflecting the lack of evidence about changes to illicit drug markets in general. It is perhaps unsurprising that there are no studies predating covid-19 that attempt to establish how a global pandemic might affect illicit drug markets, and the accounts available upon which the pandemic’s impact can be assessed are mostly speculative predictions such as media reports, anecdotal and individual examples, and opinion pieces by sector commenters. It is therefore, “altogether unclear whether (many of) statements derive from some general observations, theoretical argument, or are simply the author’s opinion” (Giommoni 2020, 1).
Whatever the changes in the levels of CL activity and exploitation, young people continued to be found on the country’s rail networks, far away from their homes, and carrying significant sums of money and/or drugs (Grierson and Walker 2020). Despite a 94% reduction in rail travel generally, British Transport Police claimed they had “not seen a reduction” of CL activity involving “juvenile drug runners” on trains (Grierson and Walker 2020). However, it is unclear how this is related to any changes in the level of CL operations themselves, as although fewer young people might be using the rail networks to move drugs, those that remained were increasingly visible to police. Indeed, the British Transport Police acknowledged that the reduction in train services and the requirement to have an essential purpose for journeys made it “incredibly easy” for them to detect and disrupt activity on the rail network (Grierson and Walker 2020).
The increased visibility of children and young people moving drugs on public transport may also have encouraged distribution networks to change their tactics. Superintendent Andy O’Connor of Merseyside police commented in media reporting that drug distribution networks were avoiding public transport and using cars instead (Pidd 2020). This was corroborated by Tidy (2020) who conducted media interviews with middle-tier drug dealers. Moreover, Harding (2020b) detailed how his drug-market involved sources had advised that the supply of drugs from metropolitan centres to provincial or seaside towns now more commonly involved “medium bulk deliveries in cars rather than sending boys down on empty trains and buses, where they would be more likely to be spotted by authorities”. This suggests that ‘runners’ might have been travelling less often, but with larger quantities of drugs and money (Caluori 2020), and remaining in rural or coastal distribution areas for longer.
There was also speculation that drug distribution networks and some drug users anticipated restrictions and began stockpiling drugs in rural and coastal towns before lockdowns were introduced in the UK (Hamilton 2020; Saggers 2020a, 2020b; Tidy 2020). The possibility that children and young people were involved in fewer journeys and longer stays might also have had implications for the number of children reported missing. A reduction in missing children reports may disguise the possibility that those who were missing could have been forced to stay in county bases for longer periods of time (Tidy 2020). This could also serve as an indicator of continued or enhanced cuckooing risk. Interviews conducted by Tidy (2020) also suggested that some drug runners were frustrated at making fewer journeys, as it reduced opportunities to make money, while those in provincial bases were bored and irritated at the prospect of spending extended periods of time in trap houses.
Reductions in the availability of other types of property for use as dealing bases, such as Airbnb accommodation and hotels, might also further increased cuckooing risk (Saggers 2020a, 2020b). However, this change also comes with a trade-off, as increased footfall at residential properties may rouse suspicion, at a time when people were not supposed to be visiting other households (Harding 2020b). Liminal spaces, such as car parks, industrial warehouses and unused railway land, were also cited as locations where drug sales were increasing (National Youth Agency 2020), as was the technique of ‘stacking’, which involves assembling groups of customers together at the same time and place (Caluori 2020).
There were also been reported shifts towards the local recruitment of young people in distribution areas, rather than relying on the traditional model of exploiting people from urban areas, marking the emergence of a new “local franchised model of CL” (Caluori 2020). Reported widely was the use of key worker disguises by runners (Harding 2020b; Pidd 2020), and daily exercise as an excuse for movement (Saggers 2020a, 2020b). Interestingly, there were also reports CLs were practising social distancing, wearing masks and gloves (Lowe 2020), and even refusing to accept cash (Eastwood et al. 2020; Harding 2020b), indicating some adherence to covid-19 protocols.
Criminal exploitation during the pandemic
Despite the difficulties in measuring prevalence, government, media and sectoral reporting have all been unified in their articulation that the pandemic’s restrictions heightened some vulnerabilities and risks of children and young people to being groomed into, and criminally exploited, through CL. The early stages of lockdown in March 2020 brought fears that children would be targeted by CL networks, as schools and colleges closed, and youth services became severely disrupted or unable to operate entirely. Commentators suggested that these factors would result in a “heightening of risks for those already exploited”, “increasing risks of exploitation”, and the “disruption of response efforts” (Smith and Cockayne 2020). The closure of schools and colleges, as well as much youth service provision, potentially reduced the time that children and young people could spend in relative safety (Coles 2020; National Youth Agency 2020).
Missing from home and care reports also dropped during lockdown (Caluori 2020), with a study by the University of Liverpool reporting a 35% decrease in reports of missing children (Shalev Green et al. 2020). While this may have been expected, concerns remain around the increasing vulnerabilities of those who do go missing, especially children under the care of the local authority, who comprise a significant proportion of all missing cases.
Pandemic-induced periods of lockdown restrictions removed opportunities for professionals to notice possible risks, gather information, and provide space for disclosures, exacerbating the existing ‘postcode lottery’ of service provision, that already leaves many young people at risk (Wedlock and Melina 2020, 82).
The National Youth Agency reported that lockdown was used as a cover for a recruitment drive by criminal networks (National Youth Agency 2020, 7). Increased time spent on the internet was also seen as a potential risk factor for the grooming of children and young people (Harding 2020b; Saggers 2020a, 2020b), especially those previously unknown to child protection services or law enforcement. More time at home meant that some were at increased risk of exposure to domestic violence (National Police Chiefs’ Council 2020a), an issue previously attributed as a push factor towards CL activity (Wedlock and Melina 2020).
CL networks’ tactics may have augmented the vulnerability of children and young people in a variety of ways. National reporting has claimed that gender biases associating CL with males has served to overlook the experiences of girls and women (National Youth Agency 2020; Wedlock and Melina 2020), and it is suggested that females are increasingly used by CL networks to avoid suspicion from law enforcement (National Youth Agency 2020; see also: Saggers 2020a, 2020b). Indeed, the National Crime Agency (National Crime Agency 2017) noted a significant, but not fully quantified, increase in the number of suspected female victims of sexual exploitation under the age of 18, which according to Windle, Moyle, and Coomber (2020, 5) can be “attributed to the rise of CL activity”. Acknowledging the role of agency in female participation, Harding (2020a) coined the term ‘survival narrative’ to refer to an “unexpected change in circumstance[s] lead[ing] women, and men, to engage in behaviours they may not previously have considered”. Such circumstances include, for example, a sudden and unexpected loss of employment, long-term poverty and the UK’s shift from legacy benefitsFootnote 1 to Universal Credit which, according to d'Este and Harvey (2020), 19), will worsen the financial conditions of many recipients, and lead to an increase in financially motivated crime.
It is clear the pandemic has had some impact on methods employed to maintain the UK’s illicit drug supply and the associated exploitation of young people. However, it cannot be concluded whether reported changes are speculative, based on anecdotal examples only occurring in one place, regionally variant, or reflective of wider (non Covid-19 specific) trends to avoid detection by law enforcement. Gaps in quantitative reporting mean it is also difficult to ascertain whether reports, which appear to corroborate one another, are drawing on speculative or anecdotal evidence from the same places. Such reporting may obscure the possibility that frontline professionals actually lack full awareness of what has happened to CL operations during Covid-19. Indeed, reduced face-to-face interactions with young people, significant court backlogs and changes in policing priorities are a likely source of much ambiguity. The assumption that CL operations must have changed because of Covid-19 restrictions, the sense of it being an unusual and extraordinary moment, arguably skews the literature away from considering possible continuities.