COVID-19 and Child Criminal Exploitation: Closing urgent knowledge and data gaps on the implications of pandemic for county lines

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Nottingham

Principal Researcher

Dr. Ben Brewster

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

June 2020

Research Context

​Our research will assess changes and continuities in perpetrator behaviour resulting from social distancing, showing whether criminal business models are likely to change due to a changing risk and/or profitability profile.

This project will inform efforts to urgently safeguard children from Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE), as the impacts of COVID-19 unfold. The social economics of CCE, including the grooming of vulnerable children and teens, the cuckooing of residential properties as distribution (‘trap’) houses, and the physical transportation and sale of illegal narcotics, have traditionally relied on face-to-face interaction, now inhibited by social distancing. The grooming techniques used by criminals to coerce children into drugs-related criminality have had to adapt. This project will detail the impact of social distancing measures on offenders’ ability to groom, methods for mobilising ‘county lines’ operations, and the prevention, detection and safeguarding abilities of police and other organisations.

By analysing data across statutory and voluntary sectors, we will show the impacts of mitigating actions and statutory reprioritisation on prevention and safeguarding, and how criminals adapt their methods. This will assist police and safeguarding authorities to protect vulnerable children and adults. Our research will provide substantial evidence upon which police, safeguarding and care organisations can formulate interventions that address county lines related offending, and reduce risk to vulnerable children and adults. Due to the urgent nature of the research we commit to tri-monthly briefings for key stakeholders, in addition to the formal deliverables in the project implementation plan.

Research Methodology

Due to the unprecedented nature of current restrictions related to COVID-19 in the UK, there is a scarcity of literature upon which to build our research. Therefore, we will position the research as a "descriptive study based on clear social problems", framing our core research question as:

What shifts in county lines offending patterns have occurred since the introduction of social distancing methods in response to COVID-19 in the UK, and what impacts have they had on efforts to detect, prevent and combat crime, and on the safeguarding of victims?

Our research will follow a descriptive case-study design with two embedded units of analysis: one focused on crime detection and enforcement, and the other on prevention and safeguarding. It will combine both qualitative (interviews) and quantitative (crime, intelligence and case records) data at the county and national levels to determine the short- and medium-term impacts of COVID-19 on county lines CCE.

Two types of data will be used in principle i) key-informant interviews, and ii) routinely recorded individual-level data from partner organisations at local and national levels (covering both crime and intelligence records, NRM data, and safeguarding case files).

Date due for completion

January 2022
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