Child Criminal Exploitation - CCE

In this blog, we will be looking at child criminal exploitations, including county lines, cuckooing and the home office's definition of what CCE is. We will also examine some signs and symptoms of children that are being used for CCE and the dangers they may face.

What is child criminal exploitation? 

The Home Office states in: Criminal Exploits of children and vulnerable adults: county lines, that CCE is increasingly used to describe this type of exploitation where children are involved, and is defined as follows: 

“Child criminal exploitation is common in county lines and 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. 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.” 

Criminal exploitation of children is broader than just county lines and includes for instance children forced to work on cannabis farms or to commit theft. 

Child criminal exploitation is a growing concern and the signs and symptoms that would show a child to be a victim of CSE can be confused with other forms of abuse. Children who have Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to be a victim of child criminal exploitation but this is not exclusive. Children can be enticed by monetary gains or, a feeling of belonging and being loved.  

County Lines 

The UK government defines county lines as: 

“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.” 

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation have a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities. 

Often, children are used to transport drugs from urban areas into rural areas. Due to a complacent rural safeguarding culture in some areas, where the belief is that “it doesn’t happen here,” this has unfortunately meant that children’s signs and symptoms have gone unnoticed. 

Any child or young person may be at risk of criminal exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. For some, their homes will be a place of safety and security; for others, this will not be the case. Whatever the child's home circumstances, the risks from exploitation spread beyond risks to the child. Their families or siblings may also be threatened or be highly vulnerable to violence from the perpetrators of criminal exploitation. 

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 affect any vulnerable adult over 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
  • 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

Perpetrators are known to target vulnerable children and adults and, some of the factors that heighten a person's vulnerability include: 

  • Having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example)
  • Social isolation or social difficulties
  • Economic vulnerability 
  • Homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • Connections with other people involved in gangs
  • Having a physical disability or learning disability
  • Having mental health or substance misuse issues
  • Being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories)
  • Being excluded from mainstream education, in particular attending a Pupil Referral Unit. It is important when schools are considering exclusions that they also consider the safeguarding risks to the child

It is thought that 14-17 years is the most common age for children to be exploited but there are reports of children below the age of 11 years being targeted as well. 

Male children are most commonly identified as being criminally exploited, but female children are also used and exploited. It may be that female children are identified by agencies for other reasons other than criminal exploitation but are also being criminally exploited. 


Cuckooing is where a perpetrator takes over a person's home and uses their property to facilitate exploitation. It takes its name after the cuckoo birds, who take over other birds' nests. Often a criminal gang will take over a person's home in order to sell drugs from that property. These gangs are often part of county lines, that funnel drugs from big cities into rural areas. Signs that properties are being cuckooed can include but are not exclusive to: 

  • Signs of drug use 
  • More cars and bikes outside the property 
  • People coming and going 
  • Litter outside
  • You have not seen the person who lives there in some time or when you do see them they are anxious, worried, upset or just not themselves. 

Children may be trafficked to this property in order to sell drugs or could be living in a cuckooed house and be subjected to further abuse and neglect.  

Signs and symptoms that a child might be the victim of CCE 

The Home Office states: 

“A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.” 

Some potential indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern: 

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and/or being found out-of-area 
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones 
  • Excessive receipt of texts/phone calls and/or having multiple handsets 
  • Relationships with controlling/older individuals or groups 
  • Leaving home/care without explanation 
  • Suspicion of physical assault/unexplained injuries 
  • Parental concerns 
  • Carrying weapons 
  • Significant decline in school results/performance 
  • Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks 
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being 

Further Resources

Dangers of CCE 

North Yorkshire has come up with this great image to show what could be the effects of CCE: 

Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit by The Home Office 

For further support and information, The Home Office has created this toolkit to support frontline staff. To download a copy, please click HERE.

Posted Date

10th May 2022

Vikkey Chaffe
Head of Community Relations

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