Child Criminal Exploitation in County Lines in England and Wales
: Challenges and Controversies of Dealing with a National Problem at the Local Level

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The county lines drug distribution model exploits children and young persons to supply and sell drugs exposing them to several harms to secure their participation including violence, sexual violence, extortion and coercion. This research establishes the challenges and controversies of dealing with the criminal exploitation of children and young persons in the county lines drugs model in England and Wales, a declared national problem at the local level. Conducted over three years, this exploratory study includes interviews with 40 participants drawn from academia, law enforcement and statutory and non-statutory organisations. It finds that despite growing awareness of county lines, the term child criminal exploitation is yet to receive equal recognition as child sexual exploitation. Despite claims made by the government and the National Crime Agency that child criminal exploitation represents a national issue, there is no national strategy meaning that the local identification of and responses to it are beset by definitional issues, siloed working practices, ineffective coordination of multiagency resources, poor information sharing, limited joint knowledge sharing and training and data collection incompatibilities. With lead responsibility for the response resting with the Home Office, child protection and welfare are overlooked in favour of treating the criminal exploiters of children as drug dealers or human traffickers. Neither has proven effective in reducing the criminal exploitation of children. Persevering with extant legislation not originally designed for this form of exploitation and which is currently buckling under the burden of cases means that children continue to be criminally exploited. This research views the problem through the theoretical framework of the policy context, legislation and operational practice. It makes recommendations for bespoke child criminal exploitation legislation that labels exploiters as child abusers and a national child criminal exploitation strategy with lead coordination responsibility sitting outside of the Home Office and law enforcement. The national strategy would promote child welfare and safeguarding over criminal justice responses. The responsibility for identifying and dealing with child criminal exploitation in county lines needs to be one that is shared with all the relevant organisations, parents/guardians and communities and, as essentially, must involve children and young persons in finding solutions.
Date of Award2 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorLeah Alexandra Fox (Supervisor), Moufida Sadok (Supervisor) & Andy Williams (Supervisor)

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