2.1 Children affected by gang activity and youth violence
Defining a gang is difficult. They tend to fall into three categories: peer groups, street gangs and organised crime groups. It is common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Although some peer group gatherings can lead to increased anti-social behaviour and 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 but it can 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 anti-social 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 hard 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. Young women are often at risk of sexual exploitation in these groups.
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. Activities can include street gang’s involvement in drug dealing on behalf of organised criminal groups and the sexual abuse of girls by 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’, ‘crew’, ‘cuz’ (cousins), ‘my boys’ or simply ‘the people I grew up with’.
Safeguarding should focus on young people who are vulnerable to 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, to drugs and sexual exploitation.
The risk or potential risk of harm to the child may be as a victim, a perpetrator or both – in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in or attached to 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 mental health problems.
The particular risks that young people face because of gang involvement will vary from area to area and over time, but they may include:
- retaliatory violence
- territorial disputes with other gangs
- harm suffered whilst committing a crime
- use of violence to assert authority in the local area
- sexual violence and sexual exploitation.
A child who is affected by gang activity or serious youth violence can be at risk of significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Girls 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 and within neighbourhoods, 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.
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.
Gang members often groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, which act as disinhibitors, create dependency, and encourage/coerce them to recruit other girls through school and other social networks.
- Child becomes withdrawn from their 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.
- Having 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 people 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.
- 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.
- Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.
Please also see Home Office guidance 'Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines'.
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 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 can come through the drugs markets and ‘drugs lines’ activity, There may be gang-associated child sexual exploitation and relationships which can be strong pull factors for girls. Exploitation is at the heart of this activity, with overt coercion taking place alongside the pull factors of money, status, affection and belonging.
In suspected cases of radicalisation, social workers and local authorities are under 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.
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 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. The Common Assessment Framework (CAF) or an Early Help Assessment (EHA) may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to the risk of involvement in gang activity.
Support and interventions should be proportionate, rational and based on the child’s needs identified during the assessment.
When a professional has concerns that a young person may be at risk of harm from gang activity, they should complete an Assessment Checklist and advise the local police.
Any professional involved with a child may notify their concerns by making a referral in line with their local procedures. The Pre-Assessment Checklist should be used as this has been developed for anyone who is worried about a young person’s possible links to gangs and gang violence to document their concerns in a consistent way.
Referrals should not be withheld because the current risk seems low or because the young person does not yet have a significant offending history: further information held by other agencies may clarify the need for intervention.
On receipt of the Pre-Assessment Checklist, the referral unit will:
- consult the police about any relevant intelligence
- check with agencies that know the young person and obtain any formal assessments
- consider whether to refer the concerns to the local Channel Panel for the area.
The Channel Panel for the local area will decide on the level of risk posed to the young person (high, medium, low or no significant risk). If appropriate it can then refer the young person to a range of positive interventions to address:
- the risk the young person is at from others
- the risk the young person poses to others
- the risk the young person poses to themselves.
If the young person is assessed at medium or high risk, an assessment will be carried out, unless Section 47 enquiries are initiated, and work will be coordinated through a lead professional.
If the young person appears to be at risk of significant harm, the Channel Panel may decide that children’s social care should be asked to arrange a strategy meeting to consider whether to initiate Section 47 enquiries.
The assessment of risk will be reviewed each month, based on information from the provider engaged with the young person and any arrest/offending record.
Sometimes if there is a possible ‘threat to life’, it may result in the police issuing 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.
In these cases, the decision not to refer 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.
“Gang injunctions offer local partners a way to intervene and 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 has 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). It 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 anti-social 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 are very likely to be previously known to other services for offending behaviour or school exclusion.
Common issues faced by girls and young women affected by sexual violence by gangs include domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, school exclusion and going missing from home.
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. There are often opportunities for preventative work to be undertaken with children to deter them from joining a gang.
- Safeguarding Children and Young People who May be Affected by Gang Activity
- Reducing Knife, Gun and Gang Crime
- Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG)
- Girls and Gangs, The Centre for Social Justice, 2014 (Research Paper)
- Ending Gang and Youth Violence Community Engagement 2014
- Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Drug Dealing (Home Office)
- Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing A Practitioners’ Guide Revised Guidance
- Preventing Gang and Youth Violence: Spotting Signals of Risk and Supporting Children and Young People
- Youth Crime Prevention Programmes