Subscribe now for just £20 per year


What's with all the missing kids?

Few will have missed the increase in missing appeals for children. To coincide with International Missing Children's Day on May 25 the SPACE organisation explains what happens when these Mispers are victims of County Lines exploitation.

What's with all the missing kids?

Date - 21st May 2021

Endless faces as we scroll through Social Media. Some names popping up with alarming regularity, their appeals resembling a child’s photo-album charting their teens - except with each missing appeal, the images raise increasing wellbeing concerns and diminishing connection to the original image.

When we helpfully share appeals in the hope of a good outcome, how much do we know of the scourge which has taken, with scary ease, a firm grip of some of the nation’s children, insidiously and quietly extracting them from their homes and families?

County Lines, CCE and Modern Slavery

The blight that is County Lines - linked to children going missing (though not all are reported), and propped up by Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) - a form of Modern Slavery which has rocketed exponentially within the last decade to become the most common child exploitation category, affecting mostly British children from every colour and class - from protective and negligent parents and family-homes and care-homes. We ponder over the images of missing children and imagine their lives, even toy with the popular idea that they must have a void somewhere, perhaps in the shape of poor parenting. The reality is children from across the spectrum of extremes are groomed to go missing because any child from any upbringing and home is susceptible to CCE.

County Lines is a criminal business model operated by drug gangs and organised crime groups using a dedicated phone line for illicit drug supply, but fronted by children and vulnerable adults systematically targeted, recruited, exploited and trafficked across Police and local authority boundaries. Common themes within County Lines are coercion, threats, sexual violence and exploitation, money-laundering, kidnap, weapon carriage and storage including firearms, debt bondage and serious violence.

Under Modern Slavery laws, any child utilised internationally, nationally, locally or within one property for the purpose of exploitation is considered to be a trafficked victim. 

Pied Piper, Puppetry and Remote Controls

County Lines exploitation is thriving through trafficking of groomed children whose minds are effectively severely rewired against good and towards evil - protective family and positive influences swapped for criminality, violence and extremism. We have a national army of brainwashed children, many now adults, who have fallen prey to the County Lines ‘Pied Piper’. By the time a first missing episode occurs, grooming on a grand scale has largely already succeeded. Though many parents note mounting changes in their child’s demeanour and behaviour leading to this point, few imagine the reality, nor the enormity and power of the controller of those changes.

Kinder Surprise

As taught by their exploiters in order to avoid detection by Police and theft by rival gangs, trafficked children commonly transport drugs bodily secreted via their private parts. This is no normal rite of passage for children in the way mastering shoe laces or balance on first bikes is, yet this very adult action is rarely responded to as a Child Protection or Safeguarding concern, but more as a criminal tactic or behaviour despite being undertaken by children. Bizarrely it isn’t seen through the lens of potential fatality should the drugs burst internally, or as Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), despite the DfE definition of CSE confirming sexual activity can appear consensual and there can be an absence of physical contact by exploiters.

Police social media accounts are awash with images of plastic Kinder egg toy containers and flippant references to ‘Kinder egg surprises’ in arrests relating to children.  The inference is often quite wrongly that the internal secretion of illegal drugs in (or without) such containers is an independent decision by children and the drug-dealing a lifestyle choice. In years to come, we’ll no doubt look back in shame at the way society thought nothing of this abhorrent practice.

Business Needs

Missing episodes are largely dependent on the trafficked distance and business need, whether rotational ‘shifts’ are in place, and the specified payback terms if victims are trapped in debt bondage to their exploiters - a hugely common occurrence ensuring victims can never be exploitation-free. A spotlight on CCE Missing within the last decade, assisted by a small number of affected protective-factor families who brought the epidemic to wider public and statutory attention, prompted the County Lines model to adapt. It swapped from distant to local trafficking to avoid undesirable Police attention generated by the increase in children from protective and proactive families who reported their children missing no matter the frequency. This switch triggered absences during the school day rather than missing after school, and children’s home-returns earlier than previously occurring, in the hope that families would view this change as an improvement and less of a concern.

Two victims

‘Cuckooing’ and ‘trap house’ have entered common usage but how often do we see that focus widen to acknowledge the full picture? Vulnerable adults, often with mental health or addiction challenges  have their properties commandeered as drug-dealing bases by gang elders but they are not the sole victims.

The foot-soldiers dishing out the drugs are mostly exploited, missing, trafficked children, enticed miles from their homes and being confronted head-on with an environment most adults would flinch from.

Children disappear into these dark holes for days, weeks or months with no access to regular meals, washing or sleeping facilities. They sleep with one eye open whilst tightly clutching their gear and weapon as trust is in short supply in their dog-eat-dog world.

They experience and witness violence and sexual abuse, and are exposed to potential infections given the drugs-related setting they are ensconced and embedded into.

If these children do return home they are  unrecognisable  - dishevelled, smelly, gaunt and hungry, traumatised and angry.

Within hours or days of a return home, they will be tasked to hand over takings, take possession of new stock and go missing again.

Police campaigns rightly encourage communities to share local information to curb cuckooing and drug-dealing but it is also highly likely that this will lead to arrests and criminalisation of trafficked children as drug-dealers, rather than seeing them safeguarded and viewed as victims of Modern Slavery. Too many responders fail to assess the true picture behind an offence.

Unavoidable seizures of drugs and takings from an arrested child will place them in dire risk and never-ending debt bondage. Missing appeals can also pose huge risks for certain children and their families and  allowing a child to make their way home after arrest is not safeguarding but a recipe for disaster.

Victim or offender? 

How does County Lines-missing look and feel for the many flung into this nightmare? Families across the UK independently report a bleak and consistent account of their ordeal, exacerbated by the statutory response.

There are lost opportunities and failures to recognise missing as a key indicator of County Lines exploitation, alongside evidence which should trigger a statutory duty to refer suspected victims into the National Referral Mechanism.

There is an exasperating lack of meaningful action or intervention to reduce missing or address the extra familial harm controlling it. This manifests itself in reactive, tick-box responses particularly in repeat-missing cases where regular or daily trafficking occurs, often within minutes of a return or welfare check by Police. Frequency of reporting tends to trigger diminishing professional concerns and support and a pervading sense of parent-blaming - that parents are somehow not managing their child appropriately and the child is continuing to ‘put himself at risk’ or ‘not learning his lesson’. 

There can be an unwavering resistance or refusal by statutory responders to venture beyond a rigid perception of a lucrative drug-dealing lifestyle choice, to exploitation, debt bondage and entrapment.

Care placements are wrongly the default go-to solution, often long distances from home, destroying already fractured family relationships and serving as little more than holding-pens and respites for responding authorities.

Diversion schemes (which work wonders for non-exploited children) and wholly inappropriate parenting courses are frequently the go-to proposals.

No exploited child has the luxury of choice to embrace a gifted gym pass or new hobby whilst their entire focus remains on keeping themselves or threatened family alive. Nor can any parent be trained or equipped to fight off harm beyond their front door when law enforcement can’t.

Difficult but not impossible 

Missing is often the entry point for statutory services and offers a key pivotal point in exploited children’s journeys. However the window of opportunity to intervene also starts quickly slamming shut. This is because an unshakeable loyalty towards exploiters who instil hatred of Police and social workers quickly develops. Many parents will have witnessed these ‘rehearsals’ in the home, alarmed and struggling to explain them. Fast forward to Police station performances and parents will be reeling from the shock their child is recognisable in name only. Missing incidents must therefore be grasped as a golden moment, with a clear goal of urgent extrication from CCE 

It would be a fallacy to say there are happy endings. There are no magic wands hence our call for better prevention and early interventions. However, there are many quick wins and ‘difficult and untested’ does not mean impossible. Interventions with the highest chance of success no matter how short-lived need to be made available at the earliest opportunity to disconnect the exploiters’ magnetism. Time is of the essence because once recruited, children rapidly sink into the quicksand of CCE. 

To coincide with Missing Children's Day, we are calling for better identification of exploited children to keep them safe from serious harm, and criminalisation for offences stemming from their exploitation and trafficking. Please support us and others in seeking a national CCE strategy which must include shifting away from the  current onus on children to self-declare CCE and identify themselves as victims. The threat of CCE from County Lines affects us all because no child is immune.  

This article is an edited version of a blog which appears on the SPACE website. To read the full piece go to:

The author is the founder of SPACE (stop and prevent adolescent criminal exploitation) and formerly worked in UK law enforcement 

Do you have an interesting news story? Contact the newsdesk on 0203 119 3303
or alternatively get in touch via the contact form.

Categories and Tags

Police Oracle welcomes readers’ comments but please keep them concise if possible. Personally abusive comments directed at named individuals and posted anonymously are not welcome. The editor reserves the right to block and delete any comments that fall into this category.


Ordered by: