Safeguarding Children and Young People at Risk of Criminal Exploitation


This chapter outlines the policy for dealing with children and young people where it is suspected that they may be at risk of, or are suffering abuse through Criminal Exploitation.



This chapter was amended in April 2022 to add a link to Tackling Child Exploitation: Resources Pack (Local Government Association) into Section 8, Further Information.

This chapter is currently under review.

1. Introduction

The criminal exploitation of children is a geographically widespread form of harm and abuse that features the use of children for criminal purposes. This can range from the use of children to hold and/or distribute drugs to forced labour in cannabis farms or nail bars.

Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:

  • Can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;
  • Can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; and
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources;
  • Can occur within the context of teenage relationship abuse.

Distinguishing Features of Child Criminal Exploitation

There are often high levels of violence and intimidation linked to the criminal exploitation of children and young people, with victims often groomed and/or tricked into working before they recognise the dangers. Children can be very quickly groomed into criminal activity, often before parents/carers or professionals realise what is happening.

Children and young people who are criminally exploited are often made to store or move drugs (including by County Lines gangs).

Children and young people may also be forced into working on cannabis farms, in nail bars, or in domestic servitude, or they can be made to pickpocket or commit other forms of theft.

The criminal exploitation of children is both a child protection issue and a complex crime involving the exercise of power by perpetrators over those who are vulnerable. Children who are criminally exploited should be treated as victims of abuse and their needs should be carefully assessed. They are likely to be in need of welfare services and, in many cases, protection under the Children Act 1989.

County Lines

The form of child criminal exploitation that has received the most media coverage is County Lines.

County Lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs from larger cities into one or more rural areas in the UK, using a dedicated mobile phone line or other form of ''deal line''. Groups and gangs are known to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money. They often use coercion, intimidation, violence, and weapons.

Children can be used to transport and hide weapons and to secure dwellings of vulnerable people in the area, so that they can use them as a base from which to sell drugs. County lines is about modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation, alongside drug supply and violent crime. It is a highly lucrative illegal business model. Those who are running county lines can earn thousands of pounds per day. The adults running these networks are removed from the frontline activity of dealing – they exploit children who are at high risk transporting and selling drugs often many miles from home.

County Lines is about modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation, alongside drug supply and violent crime. It is a highly lucrative illegal business model. Those who are running county lines can earn thousands of pounds per day. The adults running these networks are removed from the frontline activity of dealing – they exploit children who are at high risk transporting and selling drugs often many miles from home.

2. Key Aims

The purpose of this policy is to enable agencies to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people suffering from, or at risk of criminal exploitation. Staff should be able to recognise the signs of exploitation and take appropriate safeguarding action.

3. Definitions

While there is no statutory definition the UK Government defines child criminal exploitation in the following terms:

Child Criminal Exploitation occurs where an individual or a 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.

4. The Impact of Criminal Exploitation on Children and Young

There are high levels of violence and intimidation linked to this activity. Children are often groomed and/or tricked into working before they recognise the dangers.

Some children may be forced to carry the drugs in harmful ways that are abusive and could result in their death. For example, 'plugging' is commonly used, which is when children can be forced by an adult or another child to insert and carry drugs in their rectum or vagina.

They may be required to carry or conceal weapons putting them at risk of physical violence and intimidation.

All criminally exploited children are at risk of neglect, emotional harm, sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as substance misuse and extreme forms of violence. They may also exhibit other harmful symptoms, for example, depression, suicide attempts, self-mutilation, withdrawal and other disorders. They may also misuse of drugs or alcohol.

The trauma caused by intimidation, violence, witnessing drug use or overdoses and continued threats to themselves or to family members leads to significant mental and physical ill-health of exploited children. They may also be traumatised by witnessing violence perpetrated against others. In some instances sexual violence may be used as form of control or of punishment.

Criminally exploited children may be exposed to extremely dangerous situations particularly if they are required to set up or be part of a new drug market or expand an existing one. Other dealers in the area may target these children to prevent them taking over their 'patch'.

Young people who are exploited may go missing from home or from care.

All forms of child criminal exploitation may involve the commission of the offences of 'slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour' and 'human trafficking' as defined by the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Children's travel may be 'arranged and facilitated by a person, with the view to them being exploited', which amounts to human trafficking according to section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Children may then be forced to work for the drug dealer, often held in the vulnerable adult's home against their will and under the force of threat if they do not do as they are told. This meets the definition of 'slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour' in section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

6. Responding to Child Criminal Exploitation Concerns

In the event of an agency or individual having concerns that a child or young person is at risk of being criminally exploited, the level, nature, and extent of these concerns should be established using the LSCP multi-agency Child Exploitation Screening Tool and accompanying guidance.

The screening tool should be used when there are concerns that a child may be involved in, or at increased risk of entering, an exploitative relationship or situation. It is best practice to complete the form with the child or young person unless it is unsafe to do so. The tool helps to gather the information required to make a decision about risk and vulnerability.

The screening tool is for use with children up to the age of 18 (up to and including those aged 24 years with additional needs) irrespective of whether they are living independently, at home, with carers, or in a residential setting. It can be used with Care Leavers up to the age of 21(or 24 if in full time education).

All agencies and practitioners must be aware that a child under the age of 13 years old and/or any child with significant learning disabilities cannot be considered to be at low risk.

There is also local evidence that looked after children and adopted children, as well as those with a diagnosis of ADHD, Autism and/or ASD can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Care also needs to be taken when working with children who are experiencing emotional distress and trauma.

Where screening identifies vulnerabilities or other factors that could be increasing risk, the first step should be to consider how these might be addressed through early help or existing work/interventions with the child, family, peer group, or school setting. Early intervention to reduce vulnerability factors for children and young people should also be considered: this should include life mapping and referrals for psychological support where applicable.

Multi-Agency Child Exploitation Meeting (MACE)

It is the role of MACE to draw together information from screening tools and other information and intelligence to explore what options are available to disrupt criminal exploitation in the community.

Cases should be referred to MACE if screening or other intelligence identifies that:

  • The child has links to a known or suspected perpetrator of criminal exploitation; or
  • There is a significant risk of exploitation to the child from an unknown perpetrator.

If it is decided to share this information at MACE the screener is required to inform the child and family/carers.

The completion of a screening tool and/or a referral to MACE does not replace statutory safeguarding duties under Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018.

If a child is believed to be at immediate risk of exploitation, safeguarding action should be taken. Refer directly to the Children's Services Customer Service Centre on 01522 782111. If there are immediate risks to the child/young person's safety then this must be reported without delay to the Police.

For emergencies use 999. For urgent/immediate reporting use 101.

If professional judgement identifies a significant risk of exploitation then it is likely that there will be serious or complex needs or Child Protection concerns requiring an immediate referral to Children's Services (see Safeguarding Referrals Procedure). Children's Services must hold a Strategy Discussion whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer Significant Harm whether or not it appears that a criminal offence against a child has been committed.

This may be following a Referral and the completion of a Child and Family Assessment, or at any time where a child is receiving support services and concerns about Significant Harm to the child emerge. If there is any doubt about whether Section 47 applies, agencies should steer on the side of caution and hold a Strategy Discussion meeting.

Partnership Information Report – Operation Insignia

Operation Insignia is a multi-agency system of sharing information with Lincolnshire Police.

The online Information Report Form can be used to share information regarding a person at risk to help form a picture around their situation, or to enable the police to take further action in investigating an issue. This can include information that is indicating child exploitation (criminal and sexual), human trafficking or modern slavery.

Types of information to share:

  • Sightings of individuals (children and adults, victims or offenders) with other high risk individuals;
  • Places and premises visited by those at risk – especially those locations which are thought to be linked to criminality or arouse your suspicion due to the number of vulnerable people visiting or other persons associated to it;
  • Vehicles that appear suspicious which children hang around or get into;
  • Telephone numbers used by high risk individuals – victims or offenders;
  • Disclosures from vulnerable persons.

On receipt the information will be graded by Lincolnshire police based on its reliability, accuracy and where it has come from.

The form can be found at the following link: Partnership Information Report

Basic Principles for working with children at risk from, or experiencing, criminal exploitation.

The child/young person must be kept at the centre of all work and intervention and it may be necessary to manage what seems like unacceptable risk. The child should be part of the decision making and their views / wishes sought where appropriate.

A young person's view that intervention is unwelcome and unnecessary should not prevent appropriate interventions to prevent, safeguard, disrupt, and prosecute those people who are committing the abuse/exploitation.

7. Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking

If it is believed that a child or young person has been exploited for criminal offences such as county lines, pickpocketing or cannabis cultivation they may also be victims of modern slavery. If they have been moved for the purposes of that exploitation then it is likely that they are also victims of human trafficking. In such instances a referral to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) should be made.

For a full explanation of when to make an NRM referral and other actions necessary, see Safeguarding Children who may have been Trafficked Procedure.