The same mistakes that led to child sexual exploitation are being repeated with gangs
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has published an in-depth study looking at children in England who are members of gangs. The report is published as the Commissioner hosts a summit today (Thursday) bringing together Police and Crime Commissioners, senior police officers and chairs of local safeguarding boards, to hold these agencies to account and ask how they plan to keep children involved in gangs safe.
Today’s report, “Keeping kids safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation”, estimates there are 27,000 children in England who identify as a gang member, only a fraction of whom are known to children’s services. Some of these children may only identify loosely with a gang and may not be involved in crime or serious violence: more concerning is the estimated 34,000 children who know gang members who have experienced serious violence in the last year.
The research looks into the characteristics of children involved in gangs. Compared to other children known to social services or other child offenders, those with gang associations are:
- 95% more likely to have social, emotional and mental health issues and more than twice as likely to be self-harming
- 41% more likely to have a parent or carer misusing substances and eight times more likely to be misusing substances themselves
- 37% more likely to have witnessed domestic violence
- 37% more likely to be missing/absent from school
The report also shows how a number of 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% between 2015/16 and 2016/17
- Permanent exclusions rose by 67% between 2012/13 and 2016/17
- Hospital admissions for children who have been assaulted with a sharp object rose 20% between 2015/16 and 2016/17
- The number of children cautioned/convicted for possession of weapons offences rose 12% between 2016 and 2017
As part of the research, 25 Local Safeguarding Children Boards in ‘high-risk’ areas were asked about their response to gang violence and criminal exploitation, including their estimates of the numbers of children in gangs or at risk of being drawn into gangs. The responses showed many areas had no information on the levels of gang activity and risk among children in their area, and that it was often the areas with the highest levels of gang violence that had the least information. Most areas had identified only a handful of children whom they believed to be in gangs or at risks of gangs, and only one had an estimate of the actual scale of child gang membership.
The report also suggests safeguarding boards are frequently failing to investigate properly child deaths where gang violence was a factor. As a result, there is little evidence that they can ensure lessons are learnt in terms of protecting other children.
While there are now many government initiatives to tackle serious violence, there is still too much fragmentation across Whitehall. The Children’s Commissioner makes a number of recommendations in today’s report:
- The government needs to make child criminal exploitation a national priority, and lay out clear expectations about the role of all organisations working with children – including the police, schools, children’s services and NHS bodies.
- Joint inspections between Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the police and probation inspectorates should be rolled out across England, starting with the areas with high gang violence who were unable to respond to the information request for this report.
- More emphasis on the early years within the Serious Violence Strategy, with the Department for Education setting a clear target and plan for reducing the number of children beginning school with very low levels of development, along with a national plan for improving special educational needs identification in the early years.
- More support from the NHS, including better mental health support for children at risk of gang membership and exclusion.
- 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.
- Ensuring councils have enough resources to provide the youth and early help services required to meet the needs of children at risk.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on today’s report, 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.”