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Child criminal exploitation

Child criminal exploitation is when someone uses a child (under 18 years old) to commit crimes for them.

It includes things like forcing a child to work on a cannabis farm, or grooming a child to sell drugs in county lines operations.

Child criminal exploitation can involve bribery, violence or threats. The child does not need to have met whoever is exploiting them - children can be exploited via the internet or using mobile phones.

A child may have been exploited even if it looks as if they have willingly committed the crime.

Children can be exploited by individuals or groups, men or women, and adults or young people.

People who exploit children use the fact that they have power over children, because of an age difference or some other factor like gender, intelligence, strength, status or wealth.

Who is likely to be exploited

Any child can be a victim of child criminal exploitation. But risk factors include:

  • neglect or abuse

  • not having a safe and stable home

  • poverty

  • social isolation or other social difficulties

  • connections with people involved in gangs or crime

  • disability

  • mental health issues

  • alcohol or drug problems

  • being in care

  • being excluded from mainstream education

Signs of exploitation

Signs to look out for include:

  • often going missing from home or school and being found away from their normal area

  • unexplained money, clothes or mobile phones

  • having multiple mobile phones

  • getting lots of phone calls or texts

  • relationships with older people

  • unexplained injuries

  • carrying weapons

  • abandoning friends and their social circle

  • school performance getting worse

  • self-harm

  • significant emotional changes (like becoming more angry or sad)

Any sudden change in a young person’s lifestyle could be because of criminal exploitation and you should talk to them about it.

Social media

Criminal networks use social media to groom and recruit children for county lines. They may send them direct messages (knowns as ‘DMs’), or share messages to wider groups as ‘stories’ or ‘posts’.

Ways OCGs use social media

  • advertising drugs through photos, emojis, and price lists

  • posting statuses that show money, new drugs or when a dealer is open for business

  • dealers sharing ‘stories’ to followers, and using social platforms to expand their network with ‘suggested’ friends

  • tricking people with ‘fast cash’ scams, which is often referred to as ‘squares’. Victims may end up working for no little or no money, which is known as ‘debt bondage’

  • advertising for ‘workers’ or ‘runners’ to recruit people into county lines activity

  • using hashtags linked to drugs

  • using emojis as code for drug, violence and sexual activities, eg the snowflake emoji (for buying cocaine), 8-ball emoji (for buying an eighth of an ounce) or the rocket emoji (for purity of drugs)


OCGs often use high levels of violence and intimidation to protect the ‘county line’ and control them. One of these forms of control exploits vulnerable people by using their home as a base for dealing drugs, a process known as cuckooing. Dealers often convince the vulnerable person to let their home be used for drug dealing by giving them free drugs or offering to pay for food or utilities.

Often OCGs target people who are lonely, isolated, or have addiction issues. It's common for OCGs to use a property for a short amount of time, moving address frequently to reduce the chance of being caught.

There are several signs to look out for that may indicate someone is a victim of cuckooing:

  • frequent visitors at unsociable hours

  • changes in your neighbour’s daily routine

  • unusual smells coming from a property

  • suspicious or unfamiliar vehicles outside an address

Missing persons linked to county lines

Children and young people involved in county lines may go missing or be out of touch for long periods. During these times, they may be at risk of harm or violence.

If you are reporting a child as missing, you should look out for signs they may be getting exploited. You should note:

  • transport they may be using

  • people they may be with

  • people they may be in contact with

You can seek additional support from Missing People's SafeCall service, which is dedicated to those impacted by county lines.

Advice for children

If you are worried about a friend

It can be really worrying if you know someone who is in a gang or who you think may be being exploited. You don't have to cope with things on your own.

You could:

  • let them know how you feel

  • encourage them to think about their safety and their future

  • suggest they contact Childline on 0800 1111 or online

  • ask an adult for help, like a parent or teacher you trust

  • call 999 if you think they are in immediate danger and need urgent help

How to leave a gang

  • try to spend less time with the other gang members

  • try to avoid places where you know the gang will be

  • contact Childline on 0800 1111 or online

  • ask an adult for help, like a parent, teacher or youth worker you trust

  • call 999 if you are in immediate danger and need urgent help

  • focus on things that you enjoy like sport, music, art, reading or hobbies

Advice for parents and guardians

Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse.

Advice about child abuse for parents, guardians and professionals

Report possible child criminal exploitation

If you suspect someone of criminally exploiting children, or think someone you know has been or is at risk of becoming a victim find out how to report possible child abuse.

If someone is in immediate danger and needs urgent help please call 999 now or contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or via

Help and support

Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace)

Support for parents and carers of children who are being exploited by criminals.

Other child abuse support organisations

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