Children Tortured and Raped By County Lines Drug Gangs

Hospital workers witnessed a gruesome rise in exploitation and violence against children involved in heroin and crack dealing over lockdown, a new report has found.
Knives, drugs and cash seized by police in a drug raid in south London. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images

Children involved in transporting drugs in County Lines operations in the UK are being raped and having fingernails pulled off according to a shocking new report. 

New research from the University of Nottingham, found that hospital staff are increasingly witnessing children seeking medical attention for a variety of graphic injuries related to exploitation by city drug gangs, including torture, punishment beatings, stabbings, sexual exploitation and rape. One hospital worker reported numerous cases of men aged under 21 in the south of England being victims of gang rapes. 


Describing the injuries, one youth worker told the report: “Fingernails pulled off, hair pulled out, even the stabbings… whereas before COVID-19 you may have seen one or two injuries on a young person, now they will be repeatedly stabbed. So we're talking five, six times is kind of an average amount of stab wounds.”

County lines drug trade involves the movement and sale of crack and heroin from cities to drug markets in rural and coastal areas, utilising vulnerable people and children to avoid exposure. In some cases, coercion and control are used, at other times, it can be seen as a viable financial source. 

The University of Nottingham’s Right’s Lab, which authored the study, found that teenagers were much more exposed to grooming and exploitation – especially on social media – during lockdown because of reduced contact with youth workers.  

Although males were mostly targeted, authors of the report say the violence against women and girls is becoming “more severe and sexual in nature.” Some report women being passed around as sexual rewards for services, and the use of “pop up brothels.”

During the pandemic, health workers witnessed an increase in mental health problems among already vulnerable young people, including in self-harm and suicide. This was particularly prevalent among young men aged 17 to 19.

One youth worker said: “We've continued to see incredibly high levels of suicide attempts. What has increased with that is the reason for those suicide attempts being online exploitation and males and females being asked to send explicit photos.”

“These latest findings are extremely concerning,” said Dr Ben Brewster, Research Fellow in Modern Slavery Perpetration in the Rights Lab. “Taken together with the fact that professionals’ ability to identify signs of exploitation and safeguard vulnerable young people are being hindered by COVID-19 restrictions, it is a very alarming picture.”