Gang Activity, Youth Violence and Criminal Exploitation Affecting Children
See Child Exploitation Toolkit in the Local Resources.
Also see: Further Information.
Further Information links were updated in October 2020.
Defining a gang is difficult. They tend to fall into three categories: peer groups, street gangs and organised crime groups. It can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise, and although some peer group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and low level youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a street gang.
A street gang can be described as a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of children who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group's identity.
A street gang will engage in criminal activity and violence and may lay claim over territory (not necessarily geographical for example it could include an illegal economy territory). They have some form of identifying structure featuring a hierarchy usually based on age, physical strength, propensity to violence or older sibling rank. There may be certain rites involving antisocial or criminal behaviour or sex acts in order to become part of the gang. They are in conflict with other similar gangs.
An organised criminal group is a group of individuals normally led by adults for whom involvement in crime is for personal gain (financial or otherwise). This involves serious and organised criminality by a core of violent gang members who exploit vulnerable young people and adults. This may also involve the movement and selling of drugs and money across the country, known as 'county lines' because it extends across county boundaries and is coordinated by the use of dedicated mobile phone lines. It is a tactic used by groups or gangs to facilitate the use of vulnerable people or children to sell drugs in an area outside of the area in which they live, which reduces their risk of detection.
Selling drugs across county lines often involves the criminal exploitation of children and young people. Child criminal exploitation, like other forms of abuse and exploitation, is a safeguarding concern and constitutes abuse even if the young person appears to have readily become involved. Child criminal exploitation is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation and usually involves some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). The exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). Young people who are criminally exploited are at a high risk of experiencing violence and intimidation and threats to family members may also be made. Gangs may also target vulnerable adults and take over their premises to distribute Class A drugs in a practice referred to as 'cuckooing'.
Young people can become indebted to the gang/groups and then exploited in order to pay off debts. Young people who are criminally exploited often go missing and travel to other towns (some of which can be great distances from their home addresses). They may have unexplained increases in money or possessions, be in receipt of an additional mobile phone and receive excessive texts or phone calls.
White British children are often targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection and some children may be as young as 12, although 15 to 16 years old is the most common age range. The young people involved may not recognise themselves as victims of any abuse, and can be used to recruit other young people.
It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim.
If a young person is arrested for drugs offences a long way from home in an area where they have no local connections and no obvious means of getting home, this should trigger questions about their welfare and they should potentially be considered as victims of child criminal exploitation and trafficking rather than as an offender. Agencies also need to be proactive and make contact with statutory services in the young person's home area to share information.
Where there are concerns that children are victims of child criminal exploitation they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (see Safeguarding Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure).
There is a distinction between organised crime groups and street gangs based on the level of criminality, organisation, planning and control. However, there are significant links between different levels of gangs, for example street gangs can be involved in drug dealing on behalf of organised criminal groups.
Children may be involved in more than one 'gang', with some cross-border movement, and may not stay in a 'gang' for significant periods of time. Children rarely use the term 'gang', instead they used terms such as 'family', 'breddrin', 'crews', 'cuz' (cousins), 'my boys' or simply 'the people I grew up with'.
Safeguarding should focus on both young people who are /vulnerable of making the transition to gang involvement as well as those already involved in gangs. Practitioners should be aware of particular risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons; drugs and sexual exploitation.
The risk or potential risk of harm to the child may be as a victim, a gang member or both - in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household. Teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to recruitment into gangs and involvement in gang violence. This vulnerability may be exacerbated by risk factors in an individual's background, including violence in the family, involvement of siblings in gangs, poor educational attainment, or poverty or mental health problems.
A child who is affected by gang activity, criminal exploitation or serious youth violence can be at risk of significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Girls and boys may be particularly at risk of sexual exploitation.
Violence is a way for gang members to gain recognition and respect by asserting their power and authority in the street, with a large proportion of street crime perpetrated against members of other gangs or the relatives of gang members.
The specific risks for males and females may be quite different. There is a higher risk of sexual abuse for females and they are more likely to have been coerced into involvement with a gang through peer pressure than their male counterparts. However practitioners must be aware that boys and young men are also vulnerable to this type of abuse.
There is evidence of a high incidence of rape of girls who are involved with gangs. Some senior gang members pass their girlfriends around to lower ranking members and sometimes to the whole group at the same time. Very few rapes by gang members are reported. Boys and young men are less likely to report rape or sexual abuse due to factors such as (but not limited to); stigma, fear of not being believed, shame, embarrassment, homophobia.
Gang members often groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, which act as disinhibitors and also create dependency, and encourage / coerce them to recruit other girls through school / social networks.
- Child withdrawn from family;
- Sudden loss of interest in school or change in behaviour. Decline in attendance or academic achievement (although it should be noted that some gang members will maintain a good attendance record to avoid coming to notice);
- Being emotionally 'switched off', but also containing frustration / rage;
- Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
- Holding unexplained money or possessions;
- Staying out unusually late without reason, or breaking parental rules consistently;
- Sudden change in appearance – dressing in a particular style or 'uniform' similar to that of other young people they hang around with, including a particular colour;
- Dropping out of positive activities;
- New nickname;
- Unexplained physical injuries, and/or refusal to seek / receive medical treatment for injuries;
- Graffiti style 'tags' on possessions, school books, walls;
- Constantly talking about another young person who seems to have a lot of influence over them;
- Breaking off with old friends and hanging around with one group of people;
- Associating with known or suspected gang members, closeness to siblings or adults in the family who are gang members;
- Starting to adopt certain codes of group behaviour e.g. ways of talking and hand signs;
- Going missing;
- Being found by Police in towns and cities many miles from their home;
- Expressing aggressive or intimidating views towards other groups of young people, some of whom may have been friends in the past;
- Being scared when entering certain areas; and
- Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.
An important feature of gang involvement is that, the more heavily a child is involved with a gang, the less likely they are to talk about it.
There are links between gang-involvement, criminal exploitation and young people going missing from home or care. Some of the factors which can draw gang-involved young people away from home or care into going missing are linked to their involvement in carrying out drugs along county lines. There may be gang-associated child sexual exploitation and relationships which can be strong pull factors for girls who go missing.
In suspected cases of radicalisation, social workers and local authorities have a duty to refer the case to the local Channel panel, which will then decide the correct, if any, intervention and support to be offered to that individual.
4. Protection and Action to be Taken
Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm as a consequence of gang activity including child criminal exploitation should contact Children's Social Care or the police for the area in which the child is currently located. The Referrals Procedure should be followed. An Early Help Assessment may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to risk of involvement in gang activity.
Support and interventions should be proportionate and based on the child's needs identified during the assessment.
A Child in Need Assessment should be led by a qualified social worker and evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies will be key. It may be appropriate for the social worker to be embedded in or work closely with, a team (for example in the Police or Youth Offending Service), which has access to 'real time' gang intelligence in order to undertake a reliable assessment.
Practitioners should be aware that children who are Looked After by the Local Authority can be particularly vulnerable to becoming involved in gangs and being criminally exploited. There may be a need to review their Care Plan in light of the assessment and to provide additional support.
Where there are concerns about a child or young person being criminally exploited (for example If a young person is arrested for drugs offences away from home in an area where they have no local connections and with no obvious means of getting home) the Police and Children's Social Care, from the first point of contact with the young person, should consider whether they are victims of child criminal exploitation or trafficking and pursue a safeguarding, rather than criminal justice, response.
Children are often in fear of ending their contact with the gang because it might leave them vulnerable to reprisals from those former gang members and rival gang members who may see the young person as without protection.
If there is a possible "threat to life", the Police may consider it appropriate to issue an Osman Warning. In these circumstances this should trigger an automatic referral by the Police to Children's Social Care, (see the Referrals Procedure) the initiation of a Strategy Discussion and consideration of the need for immediate safeguarding action, unless to do so would place the child at greater risk.
Any decision not to refer a child should be actively reviewed to allow a referral to Children's Social Care to be made at an appropriate stage in order to protect the young person's safety.
Information and local knowledge about the specific gang should be shared, including the use, or suspected use, of weapons or drug dealing. There should also be consideration of possible risk to members of the child's family and other children in the community.
Unless there are indications that parental involvement would risk further harm to the child, parents should be involved as early as possible where there are concerns about gang activity.
"Gang injunctions offer local partners a way to intervene and to engage a young person aged 14-17 with positive activities, with the aim of preventing further involvement in gangs, violence and/or gang-related drug dealing activity". (Home Office, June 2015)
The Serious Crime Act 2015) amended the Crime and Security Act 2010 to extend this provision from 18 years and to include children and young people (14 -17 year olds). Gang injunctions also now covers drug dealing activity" as well as "violence" including the threat of violence. Applications should focus on gang related behaviour that may lead to violence, and not other problematic antisocial behaviour.
In order to make a gang injunction, the court must be satisfied that the respondent has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence or drug dealing activity. In addition, the court must then be satisfied that:
- The gang injunction is necessary to prevent the respondent from engaging in, encouraging or assisting gang-related violence or drug dealing activity; and/or
- The gang injunction is necessary to protect the respondent from gang related violence or drug taking activity.
Children involved in gangs may be known to other services for offending behaviour or school exclusion.
Girls and young women involved with gangs can be affected by sexual violence, domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, school exclusion and going missing from home. Girls will often be controlled and manipulated by male gang members and sexual violence is a common feature of the experience of girls involved with gangs. Sisters or female family members who are not actively involved with gangs can be targeted and sexually assaulted by rival gangs.Children may often be at the periphery of involvement for some time before they become active gang members. Children may also follow older siblings into gang involvement. This may provide opportunities for preventative work to be undertaken with children.
Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines (The Home Office) - This guidance outlines what county lines (and associated criminal exploitation) is, signs to look for in potential victims, and what to do about it.