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Child Criminal Exploitation, County Lines & Victim Identification: An Exploratory Study



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Marshall, Hannah Jane 


This thesis explores the processes by which young people involved in county lines drug dealing identify, and are identified, as victims of child criminal exploitation (CCE) in the context of the English youth justice system. Despite calls to recognise experiences of CCE among young people involved in county lines, the label ‘victim’ is still selectively applied, and many young people affected by CCE are still criminalised and labelled as offenders. This oversight has serious consequences for the lives of those affected. Yet at present we know very little about the processes by which victim status emerges in relation to CCE.
This thesis addresses this oversight, drawing on in-depth interviews with 50 youth justice practitioners and 17 young people affected by CCE, and on over 100 hours of observations of activities relating to CCE victim identification within an English Youth Offending Service, conducted over the course of 18 months. Using a grounded theory approach, this thesis explores three key influences on processes of victim identification. Firstly, it examines the roles of youth justice practitioners, focusing on the impact of their conceptualisations of ‘exploitation’ and ‘victimhood’, as shaped by the organisational contexts in which they work. Secondly, it explores victim identification as an interactional process, examining how relationships between practitioners and young people, and between young people and their families and peers, influence processes of victim identification. Finally, it analyses young people’s reasons for rejecting, claiming, and accepting, status as CCE victims.
The conclusion draws out the implications of this research for theory, policy, and practice. Through its exploration of the attribution of victim status as an ongoing process of negotiation and renegotiation, this thesis sheds light on new facets of victim identification, excavating its relational nature, developing the concept of the ‘scarcity of victimhood’, and demonstrating the ongoing challenges associated with victim identification in the context of the youth justice system. This thesis also takes the first step towards establishing a ‘critical youth victimology’, which engages with young people’s experiences of processes of victim identification. With regard to policy and practice, this thesis demonstrates that, because they so often fail, processes of victim identification do not adequately serve the needs of young people affected by CCE. I conclude by advocating for a social harm-focused approach which looks beyond the assessment of deservingness of support through the allocation of victim status, towards our collective responsibility to respond to the needs of all young people involved in county lines and the harms that they have experienced.





Lanskey, Caroline
Gelsthorpe, Loraine


child criminal exploitation, county lines, victim identification, youth justice, victimology


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (2131944)
Economic and Social Research Council Newnham College, University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge