More than 1,000 children have been linked to county lines drug gangs following a three-week crackdown by authorities.
The National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) said the children were among more than 2,400 vulnerable children protected in October 2018, January and May this year.
Around 131 referrals were made to the National Referral Mechanism, which identifies possible victims of human trafficking.
A total of 1,882 arrests were made, 403 drugs lines disrupted, £182,000 worth of drugs seized and 391 weapons - including 38 firearms - were found during the three week intensified crackdown.
The Home Office NCLCC was set up in a bid to target gangs exploiting children to sell drugs throug the so-called county-lines.
What is county lines? ITV News explains what the illegal practice is in our podcast, Air Time. County lines is now a well known problem being tackled by police, but back in 2016, county lines was a little known phrase that hadn't hit the headlines - until an ITV News report by Allegra revealed it to a national audience.
The term refers to the mobile phone lines dedicated to taking orders from drug users, which are operated by gangs from large cities who have expanded into smaller towns.
Young and vulnerable people often have their homes made into bases where drugs are sold from and turned into drug dens.
NPCC lead for county lines, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, said: “Since the NCLCC was set up we have made great strides in tackling and dismantling cruel county lines gangs and protecting the vulnerable people exploited by them.
“The large number of arrests and weapons seized is testament to the hard work and dedication of the centre and of officers across the country who work tirelessly to pursue and prosecute those involved.”
The NCA predict there are around 2,000 "deal lines" in operation.
Nikki Holland, the NCA’s county lines lead and director of investigations, said: “Thanks to the dedication of law enforcement officers over the past year since the centre launched, we have been able to target county lines networks in a co-ordinated way like never before – taking huge numbers of drugs and weapons off the streets and safeguarding those most vulnerable.”
Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire Kit Malthouse added: “County lines has a devastating impact on our communities and we are working relentlessly to disrupt these gangs and put an end to the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults.”