Safeguarding warning over the 27,000 children involved in gang activity across England

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The same safeguarding mistakes that led to the child exploitation scandals are being made in relation to young people’s involvement with gangs, it has been warned this week.

An investigation by the children’s commissioner has found that around 27,000 children are in gangs across England but that only a small fraction of these are known to the authorities.

Indeed, authorities in some high-risk areas had “no information” on the levels of gang activity and risk among children. Of the 27,000 children thought to be in gangs, the investigation estimates that just 6,560 gang members or associates are identified by children’s services or youth offending teams.

The findings of the investigation have been published in two reports – Keeping Kids Safe and The Characteristics of Gang-associated Children and Young People.

The reports offer vital safeguarding information for schools and children’s services. They find that compared to other children known to social services or other child offenders, those with gang associations are:

  • Ninety-five per cent more likely to have social, emotional and mental health issues.
  • More than twice as likely to be self-harming.
  • Forty-one per cent more likely to have a parent or carer misusing substances.
  • Eight times more likely to be misusing substances themselves.
  • Thirty-seven per cent more likely to have witnessed domestic violence.
  • Thirty-seven per cent more likely to be missing/absent from school.

They also highlight that a number of the early warning signs of gang-based violence have been on the rise in recent years:

  • Referrals to children’s services where gangs were identified as an issue rose by 26 per cent between 2015/16 and 2016/17.
  • Permanent exclusions rose by 67 per cent between 2012/13 and 2016/17.
  • Hospital admissions for children who have been assaulted with a sharp object rose 20 per cent between 2015/16 and 2016/17.
  • The number of children cautioned or convicted for possession of weapons offences rose 12 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

Among the recommendations, the reports are calling for an “urgent commitment” to what will replace the soon-to-expire Troubled Families programme, alongside a “long-term family-based approach to supporting children at risk of gang involvement”.

Troubled Families is a programme of targeted intervention for families with multiple problems, including crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy, unemployment, mental health problems and domestic abuse. However, funding is due to end in 2020.

The report states: “The forthcoming closure of the Troubled Families programme represents a serious threat to the support offered to many of the families with greatest gang risk. The government urgently needs to commit to the programme for 2020/21 to stop closure processes beginning from March 2019. Long-term, the future of a family-based approach needs to be ensured and developed.”

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said: “The criminal gangs operating in England are complex and ruthless organisations, using sophisticated techniques to groom children, and chilling levels of violence to keep them compliant. At the moment it is too easy for them to succeed. Thousands of children in towns and cities across England are at risk and the same attention must be paid to protecting them as to other major threats to children.

“However, I am worried that all the mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to child sexual exploitation in towns and cities up and down the country are now being repeated. Many local areas are not facing up to the scale of the problem, they are not taking notice of the risk factors in front of them, and they are not listening to parents and communities who ask for help. Less than half of child offenders involved in gangs are being supported by children’s services.

“The government and local areas need to face up to the scale of this challenge, and ensure the priority and resources are allocated to helping these children, because it is clear to me that we are not doing enough to protect them from harm. No child should end up as a headline about gangland murder or the subject of a Serious Case Review simply because nobody thought it was their job to keep them safe.”


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