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Earlier this year I spent a night on the beat with a team of South London police officers who work to tackle gang activity and ‘Serious Youth Violence’, as the Met call it.  It was an eye-opening experience which revealed the shocking levels of danger associated with gang membership. As part of our patrol, the police team discovered a large ‘Zombie knife’, an illegal weapon that would cause horrific injuries if it was used against a person. Even looking at the knife was disturbing, but it was more worrying to be told that a 15 year old had been arrested with it in a park in broad daylight and that for some gang members these knives have become a kind of fashion accessory.

In July, I published a report on vulnerable children which included statistics suggesting the number of children in gangs could be as many 46,000. It may be even higher. The lack of available data means we just don’t know how.

Why do children join gangs in such numbers? For some it is the draw of fast money and a sense of glamour. For others, as I found out during my visit to South London, it was clear that in a gang many vulnerable teenagers find the security and loyalty missing from their family lives.

Today, I’m publishing a new study commissioned by my office which brings together the views and perspectives of children who have been involved with gangs. It is the latest in a series of reports I am publishing over the next few days which collate first-hand experiences and accounts of children living vulnerable lives.

“Voices: Children involved with gangs” gives real examples of what it is like to be involved in a gang and how, for some, being in a gang provided them with a sense of belonging, love, protection and family that they had not experienced in their lives before.

The accounts suggest many didn’t join out of choice. For some it was almost an inevitability based on where they lived, while others said a lack of opportunity and status in society were factors, some – often younger children – start out being groomed to be runners by older members. As one young female gang member says, “We are all just friends. We’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve grown up the same, like we know each other’s family.” Another young man says: “You’ve heard of the postcode thing yeah? But for my gang it was more than that. It’s about how we look, how we dress, what colours we wear, how we carry ourselves, how we act, what weapons we carry, what music we’re into, how we treat one another and other people.”

Many of the children talk about the difficult circumstances they were in before joining a gang and describe feelings of powerless, turbulent relationships with family, often underpinned by violence, and disenfranchisement from schools and colleges. Lack of opportunity was also reported as a reason for joining a gang.

Some describe the areas they live negatively yet they keep a strong loyalty and identification with the area. One boy said: “It’s like letting someone know who you are or what area you come from.” Peer pressure, violence and coercion were also significant factors. One teenage girl said: “Sometimes the people that you chill with want you to do certain things that you don’t want to do but you have to do it because you’re part of that crew, you’re part of it.”

Some girls indicated that they wanted to get involved in a relationship with a gang member to gain protection and also to be loved: “I think that’s more security – and they buy you everything.” Another said “If a boy’s doing a lot of crime on the roads, girls think it’s cool.”

Yet despite these pull factors drawing young people into gangs, a number of young people spoke of the damage and dangers of membership. One of the most shocking parts of the study is the routine abuse many young women encounter. Often the girls are seen as ‘disposable’ and rape and sexual violence are used frequently to ‘control’ them. One young man recalled how girls would “just get passed around the guys, that is mainly their role … and then from once they’ve been around the circle or like the gang, or whatever, then they’re no longer of use.” A girl gang member describes how male gang members see rape as being “in control, I’m the boss, this is what’s going to happen.” A 16-year old boy described boys as ‘predators’ and girls as ‘prey’. The use of sex in exchange for protection and goods, including drugs, and the ‘procurement’ of girls in exchange for money is also reported. It’s heart-breaking to read.

Many children involved in gangs find it difficult to leave them behind. Some said they felt unable to speak to people who might be able to offer support or protection, fearing they would be seen as a ‘snitch’. Others didn’t know where to go for help, or just felt too loyal to the gang to walk away. Some were unable to leave because the institutions designed to protect them – for example supported housing and women’s refuges were also penetrated by gang culture. Eventually many do drift away, often when they become parents themselves.

The study is a reminder that there are many reasons children are joining gangs and that tackling the problem will be an immense challenge.

Firstly, we need to improve the quality of information. At the moment it’s patchy. Police forces should be working together to produce better data on the number of children being targeted by gangs and vulnerable children being used by gangs as drug runners in county lines activity. They need to be much better at collating and sharing what they know. As the Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland has said, the extent of the county lines exploitation is only slowly being recognised and tackling it may require changing how young drug traffickers are viewed.

There are also changes we can make in schools. The Government has been in favour of ‘life skills lessons’, and for some children this should include information on the risks of becoming involved in gangs and an understanding of how some gangs target children. Building resilience to reject the attractions of gang membership is essential. Most schools do provide life skills lessons but rarely do they tackle this issue. Parents must also play a leading role. Many are not even aware their children are in gangs. Meanwhile their children are not being taught the difference between genuine life opportunities and exploitative situations where they are used by gangs. Parents need to make sure they know what their children are doing, who they are spending time with and look for the signs that their kids are involved in gangs.

These are vulnerable young people living lives that are often hidden from view. I hope today’s report provides valuable insights into children involved with gangs. We need to shine a light on their experiences if we are to begin to turn those lives around.

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