July 16, 2021 Learning and Reflections, Minoritised voices & expertise by experience, Programme Blogs, Programme Themes

‘County lines’, inequalities and young people’s rights: a moment of pause and reflection


Dr Lauren Wroe is a Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, one of TCE’s consortium partners. Lauren was commissioned to write this think piece by TCE, both as an expert in her field and as part of her roles as a Research Fellow at the Safer Young Lives Research Centre.

In responding to child harm via ‘county lines’, a moment of pause and reflection is required. Critical challenge must be brought to the wave of urgency that comes about when a ‘new’ and seemingly ‘out of control’ form of child harm is thrust into the spotlight. My research[1][2] is on the application and development of ‘contextualised’[3] responses to extra-familial harm (EFH) in adolescence. For two and a half years, I have been studying multi-agency responses to child harm via ‘county lines’[4]. To support this moment of pause and reflection, this blog offers some key points of action arising from my research that are of particular relevance for strategic leaders in child safeguarding. The learning I am sharing here is borne out of:

  • research observations of multi-agency partnership meetings    
  • reviews of children’s social care (CSC) and voluntary and community sector (VCS) casefiles
  • interviews with professionals    
  • surveys with young people    
  • policy and literature reviews    
  • theory and resource development    
  • conversations with key stakeholders.

Disproportionality, harm and the multi-agency response to ‘county lines’

‘Safeguarding’ is not benign. It can cause more harm than good without constant reflection, checks and measures – including consultation with young people and communities. A 2020 Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (CSPRP) report[5] on Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) notes the use of ‘gangs matrices’, ‘mapping meetings’ and ‘soft intelligence from the police’ as tools for identifying at-risk children, with ‘mapping’ at the top of its key recommendations for a CCE practice model. In pausing and reflecting, however, the use of police intelligence to identify vulnerability, alongside mapping and matrixing practices, can have significantly deleterious consequences for young people. Aside from such methods being weighted toward identification and monitoring over prevention and intervention, the same report also notes a disproportional representation of Black (in particular) and minoritised ethnic boys and young men in CCE cohorts (at 71%, mirroring other regional figures[6]).

The use of police intelligence to identify vulnerability should be approached critically given what we know about widespread disproportional policing practices (particularly in relation to ‘gangs[7]’ and ‘drugs[8]’), where Black and minoritised ethnic young people are targeted and pulled into the criminal justice system at a disproportionate rate to their white peers. Although the purpose outlined in the CSPRP report is ostensibly to identify young people for the purposes of safeguarding, there is an (evidenced) danger that mapping and matrixing practices have a ‘net widening’ effect that pull young people and their associates into a system that has traditionally used the same methods to label and criminalise them.

How so? In 2018, Amnesty (2018)[9] published a report into the Metropolitan Police’s gangs matrix that revealed a significant over-representation of Black young people: 80% were aged 12–24, and 87% were from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic backgrounds (78% of whom were Black), similar demographics to the ‘county lines’ cohorts noted above. Crucially, they concluded that, by being identified on this matrix, young people were later denied access to a range of supportive services and educational opportunities due to the stigma and labelling that followed them as a result.

Indeed, through my work I have seen large quantities of young people’s data shared from CSC to police databases with insufficient safeguards in place around how this data might be used when later accessible by on-the-ground police officers at the point of an arrest (Wroe, 2021[10]). In some instances, assessments of vulnerability and decisions about pathways for young people involved in ‘county lines’ have been based on insufficient determiners of vulnerability such as age. This can have significant consequences for young people. Ongoing investigative research by Insa Koch[11] exploring the use of modern slavery legislation to convict ‘county lines’ offences indicates that all convictions to date have been of Black and Asian young men. We already know that Black and minoritised ethnic children are over identified as perpetrators and under identified as victims, often engaged through youth justice services rather than being supported as victims[12] [13]. There is emerging evidence that the methods used to profile gangs are being applied to ‘county lines’ and therefore affecting young people in a similarly disproportionate and deleterious way.

There is an urgency for strategic leaders to ensure that the rights and welfare of young people are not compromised through profiling and data sharing agreements across partnerships. An ecological and intersectional approach that seeks to understand the full context of vulnerability (including personal, contextual and institutional risk factors) could support this. Rather than profiling Black young people and their communities, strategic leaders could ask of their services:

How do multi-agency processes and partnerships contribute to the disproportional treatment of Black young people?’

Peer mapping – a contentious terrain

The disproportional application of the gang label to Black (in particular) young people escalates the perceived riskiness of their association to one another, but it also escalates the seriousness of the offences they are charged with and the ongoing monitoring and profiling of families and communities. Mapping is used to understand associations between young people as a mechanism for identifying risk. However, this process of association can itself pose risks to young people.

In the report ‘Dangerous Associations’,[14] Williams and Clarke make exactly this point. They demonstrate that the ‘gang’ label is disproportionately used in Joint Enterprise (JE) convictions involving BAME defendants, citing that 37% of individuals in prison for JE offences are Black. This is more alarming when we consider that Williams and Clarke’s report also reveals that in Manchester 81% of individuals profiled as ‘gang affiliated’ are Black whereas only 6% of those involved in serious youth violence are Black (and 72% to 27% respectively in London). Here, associations between young people are a pathway to criminalisation rather than safety, and it is hard to argue against this being rooted in racialised notions of where (or in whom) risk is located.

Given the inequalities described above, strategic leaders in the sector must ensure that the approaches being used to understand relationships between young people, and the sharing of this information with safeguarding partners, is transparent, proportional and has young people’s safety at heart. What are the thresholds for including young people on peer maps? Is the welfare of all young people prioritised? This would require robust agreements across partnerships about who has access to young people’s data and how it can be used. Whilst approaches to peer mapping in the sector vary significantly, and legal and ethical[15] questions around the use of peer mapping by child welfare agencies remain unanswered, safety mapping with young people, with clear agreements in relation to consent and confidentiality, can support the safety of young people and their relationships with services[16].

How will strategic leaders mitigate against the well evidenced risk of mapping meetings and frameworks used to share intelligence reproducing and compounding the disproportional targeting of Black children and their funnelling into the criminal justice system?

Watching over’ or ‘working with’?[17]

Whilst mapping of friendships and associates has been promoted[18], and has certainly featured persistently in my observations of practice, actual work with friendship groups remains taboo within the sector (‘we can’t bring them together’)[19]. Indeed this has left practitioners working in one project I observed questioning what they should do with their knowledge of associations between young people when they don’t understand the context of their relationships and lives. Another VCS sector worker asked, ‘ [With all of the information the project holds] what is our unique offer to young people?’. In my experience interventions can swing between ‘awareness raising’ programmes aimed at tackling young people’s ‘lifestyle choices’, to highly restrictive and disruptive interventions such as out-of-area placements, tagging, curfews, secure placements, and managed school moves. What opportunities are there to work with young people and communities to address the space in between?

Whilst significant resource is invested in profiling, mapping, assessing and monitoring risk, young people are often left to navigate a range of systems and structures that increase their vulnerability, including a lack of safe public spaces and youth provision, zero tolerance school policies and exclusions, impoverished neighbourhoods and disproportional policing. Indeed, significant questions remain about how to actually keep young people safe, how to safely manage drug debts (often escalated by police confiscation) or confront the steady increase and disproportional nature of fixed-period and permanent school exclusions[20]. In one study[21] of 13 local authorities in England and Wales, we noted that 10% of all young people who were harmed in extra-familial contexts were relocated out of their local area (rising to 25% in a minority of areas). There is a clear opportunity for commissioning to focus on addressing contextual risk by working with young people in the everyday contexts of their lives – contexts that often feature protection and risk simultaneously. Contextual safety could be supported by resourcing existing protective structures including families, youth provisions and schools[22].

When commissioning services, have the ethical and rights implications of risk monitoring work, and its proportionality[23] to meaningful service and resource delivery (that makes a difference to young people’s lives), been weighted?

Conclusion: looking backwards, to move forwards

The Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter and associated struggles to expose state violence towards Black people, and the #Metoo and Everyone’s Invited movements each demand a moment of pause and reflection, and aim to shine a light on the inequalities that permeate our institutions. Not only do these factors present the sector with the opportunity to do things differently, they insist on it.

Three key points of reflection and action for strategic leaders:

(1) Are the material needs of young people and local communities met?

(2) In understanding risk, are professionals supported to ensure protective factors are (equally) understood and in place for all young people?

(3) Is monitoring and data sharing underpinned by an evidence-informed and ethical understanding across partnerships that prioritises the safety (including safety from criminalisation) of all young people?


[1] Wroe, L. E. (2021) Young people and “county lines”: A contextual and social account. Journal of Children’s Services, 16, 1, 39-55.

[2] Wroe, L. E. & Lloyd, J. (2020). Watching over or working with? Understanding social work innovation in response to extra-familial harm. Social Sciences, 9, 4, 37.

[3] https://contextualsafeguarding.org.uk/a-2020-update-on-the-operational-strategic-and-conceptual-framework/

[4] https://www.csnetwork.org.uk/en/publications/contextual-safeguarding-and-county-lines

[5] ‘It was hard to escape’ – safeguarding children at risk from child criminal exploitation. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870035/Safeguarding_children_at_risk_from_criminal_exploitation_review.pdf

[6] Rescue and Response County Lines Project: Year Two Strategic Assessment https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/rescue_recovery_year_2_sa_-_sept_2020.pdf

[7] Williams, P. (2018), Being Matrixed: The (Over) Policing of Gang Suspects in London, Stop Watch, London.

[8] Release (2019), “The colour of injustice: ‘race’, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales”, available at: www.release.org.uk/publications/ColourOfInjustice

[9] Amnesty (2018). ‘Trapped in the matrix: secrecy, stigma and bias in the met’s gangs database’. www.amnesty.org.uk/files/reports/Trapped%20in%20the%20Matrix%20Amnesty% 20report.pdf

[10] Wroe, L. E. (2021). Young people and ‘county lines’: A contextual and social account. Journal of Children’s Services, 16, 1, 39-55 and Wroe, L. E. & Lloyd, J. (2020). Watching over or working with? Understanding social work innovation in response to extra-familial harm. Social Sciences, 9, 4, 37.

[11] Koch, I. (2019). ‘Who are the slave masters of today? County lines, drug trafficking, and modern slavery policies’ www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/who-are-slave-masters-today-countylines-drug-trafficking-and-modern-slavery-policies

[12] Berelowitz, S., Clifton, J., Firmin, C., Gulyurtlu, S., & Edwards, G. (2013). If Only Someone Had Listened: Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups. Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

[13] Davis, J. & Marsh, N. (2020). Boys to men: the cost of adultification in safeguarding responses to black boys. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8, 2, 255-259.

[14] Williams, P. and Clarke, B. (2016). Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism: An Analysis of the Process of Criminalisation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals. Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

[15] https://contextualsafeguarding.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CS-Legal-Briefing-2020-FINAL-1-1.pdf

[16] Firmin, C. (2020). Contextual Safeguarding and Child Protection: rewriting the Rules. Routledge.

[17] Wroe, L. E. & Lloyd, J. (2020). Watching over or working with? Understanding social work innovation in response to extra-familial harm. Social Sciences, 9, 4, 37.

[18] ‘It was hard to escape.’ Safeguarding children at risk from child criminal exploitation. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870035/Safeguarding_children_at_risk_from_criminal_exploitation_review.pdf

[19] Cody, C., Bovarnick, S., & Peace, D. (2020b). Research findings: Peer support initiatives for young people who have experienced sexual violence – tensions, challenges and strategies: Briefing paper four. University of Bedfordshire.

[20] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/permanent-and-fixed-period-exclusions-in-england

[21] https://contextualsafeguarding.org.uk/portfolio-items/securing-safety-a-study-into-the-scale-and-experience-of-relocation-in-response-to-extra-familial-abuse/

[22] Mason, W., Brasab, S., Stone, B., Soutar, J., Mohamed, A., & Mwale, T. (2019). Youth violence, masculinity and mental health: learning from communities most affected. Sheffield.

[23] https://contextualsafeguarding.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CS-Legal-Briefing-2020-FINAL-1-1.pdf

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