Skip to content

TDSAP guidance for working with adults at risk of exploitation: Cuckooing


Cuckooing is a practice where people take over a person’s home and use the property to facilitate exploitation. It takes its name from cuckoos who take over the nests of other birds.

There are different types of cuckooing, for example:

  • using the property to grow, deal, store or take drugs
  • using the property to sex work
  • using the property to store weapons
  • taking over the property as a place for them to live
  • taking over the property to financially abuse the tenant

The most common form of cuckooing is where drug dealers or gang members take over a person’s home and use it to store or distribute drugs.

They may begin by befriending the adult at risk – gangs will select members who are charming and manipulative in order for them to quickly build a rapport.

They will then offer the adult at risk something of interest to them, this could be a relationship, friendship, drugs or alcohol (or both), money or clothing.

In exchange, they may ask to ‘borrow’ a room to store something or meet other ‘friends’ at the property. In some cases, the gang may make it clear that this is for criminal purposes such as drug supply, or they may use an excuse as to why they want to use the property.

Gradually the ‘benefits’ will reduce and may eventually come to an end, and more and more people will come and go from the address.

The gang members or drug dealers may threaten the adult at risk verbally or physically if they try to put a stop to their criminal activity. They will also discourage family or friends and support workers from visiting the vulnerable adult’s address.

If there are any associated concerns about the exploitation of children these should be referred immediately to the relevant Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub and the police.

The promotion of a person’s human rights should also be at the forefront of our practice within health and social care, and there should be strong professional commitment to autonomy in decision making and to the importance of supporting the individual’s right to choose their own way of life. However other value positions, such as the promotion of dignity, or a duty of care, are sometimes also advanced as a rationale for interventions that are not explicitly sought by the individual (SCIE Report 46, 2001).

This process should not affect an individual’s human rights but seeks to ensure that the relevant agencies exercise their duty of care in a robust manner and as far as is reasonable and proportionate.

County lines

“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’.

“They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.” (Home Office)

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation have a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities.

Who might be at risk of cuckooing?

We know that exploitation is widespread, adults can be targeted individually or the exploitation can be connected to gangs involved in county lines who are known to target children and adults. Some of the factors that heighten a person’s risk of cuckooing include:

  • having prior experience of neglect, physical or sexual abuse or both
  • lack of a safe or stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic abuse or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example);
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • economic deprivation
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • connections with other people involved in gangs
  • having a physical or learning disability
  • having mental ill health
  • substance misuse issues
  • history of being in care

Signs and indicators of cuckooing

People who choose to exploit will often target the most vulnerable in society. They establish a relationship with the person to access their home.

Once they gain control over the person- whether through drug dependency, debt or as part of their relationship – larger groups will sometimes move in.

Threats are often used to control the person.

It is common for the perpetrators to have access to several cuckooed addresses at once, and to move quickly between them to evade detection.

The victims of cuckooing are often people who misuse substances such as drugs or alcohol, but also can be people with learning difficulties, learning disabilities, mental health issues, physical disabilities or socially isolated.

Signs that cuckooing may be going on at a property include but are not limited to:

  • an increase in people entering and leaving
  • an increase in cars or bikes outside
  • an increase in anti-social behaviour
  • people coming and going at strange times
  • damage to the door or the door propped open
  • unknown people pressing buzzers to gain access to the building
  • not seeing the person who lives there recently or, when you have, they have been anxious or distracted
  • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
  • excessive receipt of texts, phone calls or having multiple handsets
  • relationships with controlling or older individuals or groups
  • leaving home or care without explanation
  • suspicion of physical assault or unexplained injuries
  • carrying weapons
  • gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being
  • lack of healthcare visitors
  • presence of young people frequenting the property

It is important to remember that not all of these issues will be a sign of cuckooing but may indicate other support needs.

How we tackle cuckooing

Cuckooing may be part of wider and more organised crime with links to criminal exploitation, but it may also be a less organised and more localised issue.

Clearly any response to cuckooing concerns needs to be person centred and when safeguarding criteria is also met in line with making safeguarding personal. However, it also really important to recognise patterns and themes within an area, as this may indicate the concerns are more widespread and more people are at risk from the same perpetrators.

For this reason it is really important that agencies working with people with different needs, such as older people, people with learning disabilities or learning difficulties and people with mental health needs ensure that they have an awareness of the indicators of cuckooing and discuss whether there are any known concerns within the area in forums such as team meetings. It is important for agencies to share relevant information about what they know about the situation, as this can help inform the response needed.

A multi-agency response is key to working to address concerns around cuckooing and exploitation and this is likely to include police, social care including children’s services, the local authority, housing, health workers, substance abuse support agencies, the voluntary sector and care providers. It is vital that practitioners recognise, and by working partnership, identify tactics to disrupt multiple types of exploitation. This will include an understanding of existing legislative opportunities at their disposal and to target specific risks.

In some cases where there is immediate risk to someone, it may be necessary to take steps on an urgent basis to support them to move to alternative accommodation to safeguard them.

There are also other tools and powers that can be used to remove the people who are exploiting and keep the tenant safe. In the more extreme cases, the local authority and police will work together to obtain closure orders or injunctions on the cuckooed properties.

The Anti-Social Behaviour; Crime and Policing Act (Section 8) allows for closure orders to prohibit access (up to three months) to a property. Injunctions can also restrict who can enter a property. Breaking a closure order is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment, meaning police can immediately arrest unwanted people found in a home with a closure order on it.

Further legislation can also be used, such as, CAWNs (can be used for adults in certain situations), Serious Crime Act (specifically Section 34 (gang injunctions)) as well as Modern Slavery Act 2015 (specifically Part 2, Slavery and Trafficking Prevention / Risk Orders).

It is important to remember that perpetrators of cuckooing and exploitation may have support needs of their own such has around their mental health or substance misuse. Agencies should consider whether offering support or assessment to them may also help to mitigate risks.

There could also be children who may be perceived as alleged perpetrators of abuse but are themselves being victimised so it is key that a referral is made with Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub where there may be a child or children identified.

For Torbay Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub referrals click here

For Devon Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub referrals click here

For Plymouth Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub referrals click here

Mapping a multi-agency planning meeting

Where an adult at risk appears to be a victim of cuckooing, the lead agency (that is, the agency initiating the cuckooing guidance) should scope which agencies need to be involved in planning meetings. This should be based on which agencies should be involved in meeting the person’s care support needs or may hold information connected to the cuckooing concerns particularly where there are multiple adults at risk. Agencies should not decline to be part of the planning meeting on the basis that they are not currently actively working with the person. It is important to note that any agency can lead the multi-agency planning meetings, and this does not necessarily need to be Adult Social Care.

However, where the concerns are considered to be relating to any category of abuse related to cuckooing, and there is an indication that the adult at risk may be unable to take steps to protect themselves due to their care and support needs, you can report your concern.

The lead agency will usually be determined by which agency has the most knowledge about the person and their situation, the most current or previous engagement and based on the needs of the person given the risks within the person’s situation. It is expected that agencies will prioritise attendance at multi agency planning meetings wherever possible. When agencies are not able to attend the meetings, it is expected they will provide relevant information.

When scoping invitees, consideration should be given as to which person might be best to work with the adult/s at risk this is particularly important where there are multiple adults involved.

The adult/s at risk should be advised of the meeting and their views should be sought in advance and be recorded as part of the multi-agency meeting. Careful consideration should be given about what information can be shared especially where there is multiple adults involved based on risks within the situation. The decision and reasons for this should be clearly documented. If there is uncertainty, then the lead agency should consider seeking legal advice within their agency about whether information should be shared.

Capacity or lack of capacity is a vital element in safety planning with, or on behalf of, adults who are at risk of cuckooing (see Mental Capacity). Therefore, the adult at risk’s mental capacity in respect of the specific concerns associated with the case should be discussed at the beginning of each meeting. If there are doubts raised about the person’s capacity, then a mental capacity assessment should be undertaken in relation to this decision.

Multi-agency planning meeting

The main purpose of the initial support planning meeting is to agree a plan to try to reduce the level of risk to the person/s within their situation. Whilst the risk is shared on a multi-agency basis it may be agreed that only one agency will be taking the lead. This should be the agency that the group agrees will have the best chance of reducing risk to the person/s.

The purpose of the subsequent multi-agency meetings is to review whether the plan is working to reduce the level of risk and if not agrees whether the plan needs to change to try another approach. If it is known that a number of people have been affected by cuckooing concerns in the area, the meeting should also try to ‘map’ any common themes and patterns in relation to the perpetrators.

The meetings should be chaired by someone who has an appropriate level of authority to agree actions on behalf of their agency and appropriately challenge other agencies if they are not participating as required in the process.

It is important to agree timescales for each part of the process (to prevent the case ‘drifting’). This will be different for each case dependent on individual circumstances.

Within the support plan, it should be clear what the agreed actions are, who is responsible for carrying out the actions and the timescales involved and the date of the next meeting. Disagreements should also be clearly documented.

The lead agency is responsible for ensuring that the notes and actions from the meeting are sent in a timely manner to all those present at the meeting, and also those people or agencies not present but where actions have been identified for them. Arrangements must be agreed as to how the adult/s at risk will be updated about the outcome of the meeting.

Professional disputes and escalation

It is recognised that at times there will be disagreements over the handling of concerns. These disagreements typically occur when:

  • the adult at risk is not considered to meet criteria for safeguarding process
  • the person’s mental capacity to make decisions about their risk within their situation is disputed
  • professionals feel that meeting the needs of the adult at risk sits outside of their work remit
  • partner agencies are consistently not providing input to the process, or following up on their actions
  • professionals are in dispute about aspects of information sharing or confidentiality or both

Professionals involved in this process should always try to work out their differences and put the adult’s needs at the centre of the process. Where there are irreconcilable and significant differences between professionals, the TDSAP Escalation Protocol provides a basis of how this should be escalated and addressed.

Adults who have mental capacity to make decisions that may result in them placing themselves at risk of significant harm or death may require further judicial intervention to ensure their safety, through Inherent Jurisdiction of courts. This is most likely to occur if the adult continually fails to engage with risk management strategies and all other options have been exhausted.

There may be occasions when the courts are prepared to intervene in the case of an adult, for example, where an adult is receiving undue pressure or coercion from a third party. This process is rarely used due to the implications relating to human rights, and therefore senior manager and legal advice should always be sought when Inherent Jurisdiction may be a consideration.

Relevant guidance

Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Home Office)

County Lines (National Crime Agency)


With thanks to Leicester City and Leicestershire & Rutland Safeguarding Adults Boards, whose ‘Guidance for Working with Adults at Risk of Exploitation: Cuckooing’ has been adapted to this guidance.


Last Updated