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County Line Awareness: Impact, Prevention, and Treatment for Teenage County Line Victims

Written By Stuart Croft
Reviewed By Tiffany Green
Medically Reviewed By Dr David Barker
Updated April 8, 2024

As rehab and mental health services providers, we at Gladstones Clinic are responsible for being sensitive about what we say and the terms we decide to use both in therapy and in our publications. We carefully consider any labels we use, understanding that mental health and drug abuse issues are often uniquely nuanced and require more than skin-deep understanding. With that in mind, even we find it easy to label County Lines—organised criminal groups that extort, coerce, abuse, and exploit teenagers and other vulnerable persons into the drug trade for financial gain—as evil

The term ‘County Lines’ refers to the dedicated phone lines used by criminal networks to coerce teenagers and often adults with mental health and addiction problems into transporting, storing, and selling drugs. These gangs coerce, threaten, and intimidate those they see as weak, grooming them as drug runners while understanding that they are less likely to put up resistance or seek help. With some even being subject to kidnapping and ‘plugging’*, Public Health England has found some victims of County Lines to be the victims of modern slavery. 

While it’s impossible to say exactly how many County Lines are operating within the UK at any point in time, The Children’s Society estimates that more than 46,000 children in England are involved in gangs (The Children’s Society), many of them recruited through legitimate-looking posts on social media platforms that are popular with teens. Many of these children are destined to suffer long-term physical, emotional, and psychological harm at the hands of County Line gangs. 

*hiding drugs in body cavities, either anally or vaginally.

The Impact on County Lines’ Victims

County Lines use an array of creative coercion and intimidation tactics to get what they want. Although each of their victims has their own story to tell, many of them suffer from some sort of combination of:

Mental Health Issues

It’s not difficult to imagine that continued threats to your or your family’s safety by criminal elements are harmful to one’s mental health. The psychological effects of being exploited are well documented, and many of the victims of County Lines develop complex mental health problems such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, or depression. All of these conditions can have a devastating effect on your happiness and quality of life, and in the case of teenagers or those with pre-existing mental health problems, can quickly turn into desperation and thoughts of self-harm or even suicide. 

County Lines have also successfully weaponised addiction. By targeting those with substance abuse problems, especially those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and offering drugs in return for a small favour or quick and easy job, they keep their victims dependent on them while addiction and its effects worsen. When these drugs form a powerful chemical dependency, such as the ones formed by opioids, ketamine, and amphetamines, simply walking away from a bad situation becomes incredibly challenging. 

It is of critical importance to recognise that those teenagers and other vulnerable persons caught up in County Lines are seen as the victims of coercion and exploitation rather than as perpetrators. Many will have been subject to trauma and in need of counselling or therapy, and if simply prosecuted and locked away, are likely to find it very difficult to rejoin their communities as happy, productive, and driven individuals.

Physical Harm

Although County Line gangs largely resort to psychological threats and intimidation, in some cases, their victims experience physical violence and sexual abuse. One particularly barbaric form of violence is the practice known as ‘plugging’, which crosses both into physical violence and sexual abuse territory in some cases. In the context of County Lines, plugging is the forceful or coerced hiding of drugs in body cavities, either anally or vaginally. In addition to the humiliation of being forced into this practice, especially as a teenager, there is also a real and serious risk to one’s physical health. Beyond just the risk of infection, ruptured packaging that leads to the contents leaking directly into the body could easily be fatal. 

Criminal Line gangs sometimes engage in a practice called ‘cuckooing’. Using fear, violence, and intimidation, gangs take over their victims’ houses and use them as a base of operations from which to deal and distribute drugs. In cases where these gangs have identified lonely or isolated people, especially those dealing with addiction, they might pose as a helping hand, offering free drugs or offering to pay for groceries or utilities before setting up shop in someone else’s home (Metropolitan Police). 

Long-term Impact on Wellbeing

Even in cases where sexual assault and physical violence are absent, a teenager who gets caught up in the world of County Line gangs could easily see their lives slip away from the path they had imagined. Years of fear and intimidation take their emotional toll and lead to the development of serious mental health disorders, many of which destroy one’s sense of self-worth and esteem and make meeting the challenges and responsibilities of life impossible. 

Some unfortunate teenagers never get rescued from County Line gangs. In many of these cases, they might turn to drug dealing themselves as it might be the “only thing they’re good at” or, even worse, join the gangs themselves and help recruit the next generation. Heading down this path as a late teen or young adult sets you up for addiction, arrest, and, quite possibly, a violent death.

How to Protect Your Child from County Line Gangs

The best weapon against County Lines is awareness. Up until just a few years ago, widespread and organised gangs using children to run drugs in the UK was unthinkable. Now, it’s become a fact of life. With awareness of how County Lines operate, especially when it comes to recruiting, you can have the conversations you need to protect your family.

Open, honest, and informed dialogue with your children is the best way of keeping your family safe from County Lines.

While it’s tough and uncomfortable telling a 10- or 11-year-old that there might be people out there trying to recruit him or her into a gang, the alternative is them walking around naive to a growing concern. We cannot stress how important it is for children and teenagers to know what is happening to others their age. As much as awareness is your best weapon in this fight, it’s also theirs.

Points to include when discussing County Lines with your child include:

  • Basic online safety rules, such as having a healthy suspicion of any unsolicited messages they receive on any platform, regardless of the profile, its number of followers, content, or anything else on the profile that appeals to them. Online platforms, including social media and online gaming communities, are excellent recruitment tools as they allow the gangs to directly communicate with teens without their parents’ knowledge. 

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  • Encourage your child to share with you when they receive messages from unknown people on their phones or the internet. If, by any chance, you yourself receive suspicious messages or texts that look like any kind of scam, share them with your children so they can see examples. Encourage them to think critically about offers or deals that sound too good to be true, random people trying to befriend them over time, and promises of money or other rewards.
  • Discuss what to do if they are ever threatened or coerced into doing something they don’t want to do. Even a teen who is aware of County Lines might do something they later regret under threat of violence to them or a loved one. Make sure that your child knows who they can approach when faced with intimidation, be it you, a trusted teacher, or another family member. Be sure your child knows never to accept a phone given to them for free by anyone they don’t personally know and fully trust.

While this conversation might help you keep your child safe, please take a second to think of your children’s friends and their families and share this information with your community. As informed communities that see the well-being of our own, other, and indeed all children as our highest priority, we can do our part in combating County Line gangs. 

Helping the Victims of County Lines

For any of the reasons discussed so far, many of those who escape from the grasp of County Line gangs find it challenging to readjust to normal life. The trauma of continued coercion and often witnessing violence or sexual abuse as a minor would harm and haunt a healthy adult, let alone a teenager who is still learning how the world works.

While residential mental health and addiction rehab clinics that help teenagers regain a sense of normalcy are few and far between, recent years have seen a massive explosion in the number of organisations, policies, and initiatives that aim to assist those who have fallen victim to County Lines and wish to find a way out. There are also several programmes and initiatives to combat County Line gang operations.

Some of the biggest of these, all well-worthy of support and donations, include The Children’s Society, which actively works in fields such as children’s rights and advocacy, preventing child abuse, and assisting those leaving County Lines, and The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), which acts in a similar capacity along with working with schools, running national helplines, and offering therapeutic services to those in need. 

The County Lines Programme, launched by the Home Office in 2019, aims to expand national coordination and investment in new technologies to disrupt County Lines, while the Serious Violence Strategy focuses on early intervention and prevention. Policies aimed at tackling the root causes of violence and exploitation as well as assisting the victims of County Lines include the 2005 Modern Slavery Act and the Children’s Act.

Collectively, these organisations, initiatives, and policies aim to protect, support, and rehabilitate victims of coercion, ensuring their safety as they reintegrate into society. 

Residential Rehab and Mental Health Services for Teenage Victims of County Lines

As one of only two private residential rehab and mental health service providers with the capacity and expertise required for teenage rehabilitation and therapy, Gladstones stands united with the parents and people against County Line gangs. With first-hand experience in dealing with the harm they cause, we understand the nuances and complexities of dealing with child victims of abuse, fear campaigns, and addiction. 

We offer modern and evidence-backed rehab and therapy services at our safe, comfortable, and welcoming residential facility in the Cotswolds. Here, our patients have all their physical, psychological, and emotional needs met by a qualified and experienced team of addiction specialists, physicians, psychiatrists, and other support staff to ensure a lasting recovery and successful reintegration into school, life, and living.

Gladstones Clinic is committed to the full and life-long recovery of all our patients. We have several support systems and secondary programmes in place to ensure that you will always have access to the services and help you or your family needs. 

If your family or loved ones have been affected by County Lines, please reach out to Gladstones for an obligation-free discussion on how we can help. Our skilled and experienced operators can help guide you through what is almost certainly a difficult and traumatic time. You can reach us at 0808 258 2350 or through our Contact Us portal.

You can find out more about our Teenage Therapy services on our Specialist Services page.

Get professional help in dealing with addiction

If you would like more information on our addiction rehab programme, feel free to contact Gladstones Clinic at 0808 258 2350 for an obligation-free discussion or advice.

Works Cited

The Children’s Society. “County Lines & Child Exploitation.” The Children’s Society, Accessed 18 March 2024.

Metropolitan Police. “County lines.Metropolitan Police, Accessed 18 March 2024.

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