Funded by Health Care Research Wales, This 18-month exploratory research project is aimed at creating a toolkit for an effective service response to improve the outcomes for children at risk or involved in county lines.


Much of what is known about CCE relates to county lines, a model of drug supply that has become widespread across the United Kingdom. County lines operate using a dedicated mobile phone number to sell drugs from larger cities to end-users living in coastal, rural and market towns. While not all county lines use children, where children are targeted it can affect all ages and ethnicities. This project will contribute to the knowledge base regarding the nature and scale of the problem, what approaches and interventions are most effective and how contextual safeguarding approaches can be used in practice within the Welsh context.

Activities and Methods

The project consists of three phases:

Phase one: Semi-structured interviews with 21 young people, 15 parents and 56 professionals from British Transport Police, children’s services, education, health, housing, probation, youth offending services, the third sector and Welsh Government.

Phase two: Design of the toolkit based on phase one findings and in collaboration with the project advisory group which comprises young people, parents and representatives from social care, health, education, police, housing and youth services.

Phase three: Implementation and refinement of the toolkit.


The project found that:

Any child can be criminally exploited regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.

  • The adoption of the term county lines may detract attention from children who are exploited by family members or local individuals or groups even where these groups were adopting a similar model and levels of violence as the county lines groups.
  • A consistent theme across findings was the extent to which children were exploited due to the promise of financial gain and the assertion that making money through dealing drugs is ‘easy’. This served to minimise their perceptions regarding the risks and dangers inherent in their involvement.
  • Exploiters used a range of techniques to trap children within the exploitative relationship. This included debt bondage either where the county lines group steal the package from the young person or where they introduced children to cannabis use or encouraged existing cannabis users to fall into increasing amounts of debt.
  • While parents had noticed changes in their child’s attitudes, behaviours and peer groups, a lack of knowledge about exploitation meant that this was often not identified, understood or addressed.
  • Criminally exploited children did not always present as stereotypical victims which rendered them more likely to be perceived as complicit in their criminality. This was exacerbated where children were reluctant to disclose that they were being exploited.
  • Professionals were unanimous that child criminal exploitation necessitated new ways of working as current safeguarding practice is focused on intrafamilial abuse of children under the age of 12.
  • Several barriers were noted in relation to statutory services and engaging children. These included the time-limited nature of service delivery, adherence to office hours, staff turnover and absences, which all served to detract from supporting children and the development of good relationships.
  • There has been a concerted effort in Wales to address and prevent child criminal exploitation. This has included practice guidance for the Welsh Government, establishment of the Wales Violence Prevention Unit and local developments, such as the creation of exploitation multiagency meetings.
  • There is a need for approaches and interventions that address both push and pull factors which make children vulnerable to criminal exploitation. This includes preventative work at the child, family, system and community levels.



The research project has led to the following outputs:

Complex Safeguarding Wales

Complex Safeguarding Wales is a website for parents who are worried about child criminal exploitation. It provides an overview of child criminal exploitation, the warning signs and a summary of the policy for children’s services, education and housing. The website provides practical guidance and links to help and support.

Child Criminal Exploitation Toolkit (available on request) The toolkit was co-produced with young people, parents and practitioners with direct experience. It is divided into two sections. Section one provides definitions and guidance including information about multiagency approaches and working with young people and parents. Section two provides sector-specific information for children’s services, education, health, housing, police, youth offending team and youth services. Each section provides an overview of relevant policy and practice guidance.

Child Criminal Exploitation Assessment Tool (available on request)

The assessment tool was co-produced with young people, parents and practitioners with direct experience. It is aimed at helping practitioners to record their concerns when child criminal exploitation is suspected.

The assessment tool complements the policy and practice guidance landscape in Wales. It is underpinned by the fundamental need to adopt a child-centred, child rights approach and aligned with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures and All Wales Practice Guidance.

Youth Charter: co-produced with the Peer Action Collective based in Media Academcy Cymru. The Youth Charter includes nineteen statements about how young people want professionals to engage with them.

Lead Person

Principal InvestigatorNina Maxwell
FundersHealth and Care Research Wales
Related publicationsA systematic map and synthesis review of Child Criminal Exploitation – October 2019
Related links