A systematic map and synthesis review was commissioned by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to assess what is known in the literature about child criminal exploitation.


While national intelligence is improving, it is difficult to determine whether child criminal exploitation is increasing or whether the figures represent growing awareness of its existence (HMICFRS, 2020; National Crime Agency, 2017). Much of what is known about child criminal exploitation is based on County Lines, a drug supply model that uses a dedicated mobile phone number, or deal line, to sell drugs from larger cities such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester to end users living in coastal, rural and market towns.

The aim of the review was to assess what is known in the literature about child criminal exploitation, in relation to:

  • Evidence of good practice in the early identification of young people vulnerable to CCE
  • Key messages for developing an effective service response for young people involved or at risk of becoming involved in CCE

Activities and Methods

A systematic map and synthesis review was conducted in April 2019.

The following databases were searched: Embase, Medline (including Medline In-Process and Medline ePub), PsycINFO, Scopus and Social Policy and Practice.

A search for grey literature, using key terms, was conducted of the following online resources: Barnardo’s, Children’s Commissioners’ offices for the four UK nations, Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, Children’s Society, Child Welfare Information Gateway, GOV.UK, Early Intervention Foundation, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, National Crime Agency, NSPCC and Safeguarding Hub.

Searches were limited by year to post 2000 and to the English language.


While detailed findings are presented in the full report, the headline findings are:

Child criminal exploitation can affect children of ages and ethnicities.

  • There are a wide range of risk factors that can increase potential vulnerability to child criminal exploitation. These include poverty, abuse, neglect, behavioural difficulties, school exclusions, special educational needs, children looked after, those who are missing, drug users, and those with physical or mental health issues.
  • To evade police detection, various tactics are used including the recruitment of children representative of the ethnicity in the specific area, targeting children with no previous offences, ensuring children are rotated across lines and ensuring children are only away from home for short periods of time.

Child criminal exploitation is linked with other forms of exploitation including child sexual exploitation and serious violence.

  • Drug networks use serious violence to ensure children’s compliance and loyalty.
  • Exploited children can be both the victims and perpetrators of violence.

There is little research about what works in responding to children who are involved or at risk of becoming involved in child criminal exploitation.

  • There is no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation.
  • Where children are brought to the attention of services, professionals and parents experience difficulties in accessing support as many children fail to meet current service thresholds.
  • There is a need for therapeutic interventions for children suffering from exploitation.
  • Services need to be consistent and persistent in the engagement of children who may still be subject to exploitation or fearful of reprisals.

Child criminal exploitation is a complex social problem and therefore it requires interventions at national, community, family and child level. These are outlined in the review report.

Lead Person

Principal InvestigatorDr. Nina Maxwell

Academic Staff

ResearcherCatrin Wallace
ResearcherAimee Cummings
ResearcherDr. Hannah Bayfield
ResearcherDr. Helen Morgan