1.4.25 Gang Activity and Youth Violence
SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
This guidance has been written to help frontline practitioners across the children's workforce to understand the nature of the risk that gang activity poses to children, both through participation in gangs and as victims of gang violence. It also explains how signs of gang involvement may manifest themselves and how to deal with such issues.
See also: Knife, Gun and Gang Crime information on the Home Office website
NOTE: 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 the local authority's Children's Social Care Service for the area in which the child is currently located or the police (999) if a young person is in immediate danger.
AMENDMENTIn December 2022, this chapter was revised throughout in line with local practice.
Addressing concerns arising from a young person's involvement in a gang is a multi-agency issue; partnership working and information sharing are key to safeguarding children and young people at risk of gang-related harm.
Young people can be put at risk by gang activity both through participation in and as victims of gang violence.
Overall, children particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in the gang context are those who are:
- Not involved in gangs, but living in an area where gangs are active, which can have a negative impact on their ability to be safe, health, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being;
- Not involved in gangs, but at risk of becoming victims of gangs;
- Not involved in gangs but at risk of becoming drawn in, for example, siblings or children of known gang members; or
- Gang-involved and at risk of harm through their gang-related activities (e.g. drug supply, weapon use, sexual exploitation and risk of attack from own or rival gang members).
Victims and offenders are often the same people. When adults treat a young person as just a victim or just an offender, they are not taking into account the complex, cyclical nature of the victim-offender link and the factors that influence young people's lives.
2. Definition of a Gang
Being part of a friendship group is a normal element of growing up and it can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Although some group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and youth offending, these sorts of activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a gang.
A gang is a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people and young adults who:
- See themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;
- Engage in a range of criminal activity and violence;
- Identify with or lay claim over territory;
- Have some form of identifying structural feature; and
- Are in conflict with other, similar, gangs.
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 young people can be exploited locally in other parts of the district as well as being encouraged to 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 (Home Office Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, 2018). The young people involved may not recognise themselves as victims of any abuse, and can be used to recruit other young people. Young people can sometimes choose to align themselves with gangs as a form of protection and professional curiosity should be used to identify the role in which young people and adults play and to identify the bespoke support that is needed for individuals operating within a gang.
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. At the earliest opportunity, a referral to the NRM should be made (see GOV.UK, Making a referral to the NRM). Agencies also need to be proactive and make contact with statutory services in the young person's home area to share information.
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.
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 evidence from intelligence and analysis suggests that gangs are predominantly male with an average age of 20 and extensive criminal histories with the average age of a first conviction of 15. However there has recently been a noticeable and significant lowering of the age profile of recognised gang members. Issues of respect, territory and gang identity often motivate these young gang members. They may engage in a lower level of criminality to begin with, including street robbery, burglary, assault and anti-social behaviour. Considerations should also be given to any ‘hidden’ females within the gang such as girlfriends of gang members who may be at risk.
3. Gang-Related Activity - What is the Risk?
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 grooming and 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, poverty, mental health problems, neurodiversity, other adverse childhood experiences.
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 and 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. Violence can also be used by gangs to demonstrate power status to other gangs or groups operating in the area, or to intimidate community members to remain silent about gang activity.
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 due to reluctance to report and gender bias factors.
Gang members often groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, increasingly the use of Nitrous Oxide/balloons, which act as disinhibitors and also create dependency, and encourage / coerce them to recruit other people through school / social networks.
Safeguarding principles should be a priority for any young people who are sexually exploited and abused. Professionals should challenge their practice to recognise that sexual exploitation and abuse, can also affect male gang members. The risk of sexual exploitation and abuse was highlighted by the Children's Commissioner's inquiry (see below) and should always be considered as a risk when assessing individuals and when developing a local profile of gangs. For example rape by gang members, as a form of retaliation or as an act of violence, is said to occur quite frequently in some areas and reports to the police are rare due to fear of intimidation or reprisal. This may also be a risk for siblings and other family members of female gang members.
Some children and young people are at risk of exposure to or involvement with groups or individuals who condone violence as a means to political end. Violent extremist causes range from animal rights to far right politics to international terrorism. See also: Safeguarding Children and Young people against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Procedure.
Practitioners should bear in mind when assessing either victims or perpetrators of crime of the potential for young people to become involved in gangs and gang-related violence as a result of being a victim of crime.
Research has shown that victims of crime can become offenders because of their experience. Retaliation and the need for respect can be factors in the progression from victim to offender; carrying a weapon following an attack can help a young person to rebuild respect, as well as offering a feeling of personal protection. Evidence shows that those who carry knives for their own protection are more likely to become a victim as a result and the knife can be turned on them. However some experts argue that often it is a fear of gangs and crime that leads to young people carrying knives, because they believe it will help to keep them safe.
4. Identification and Risk Factors
There are particular risk factors and triggers that young people experience in their lives that can lead to them becoming involved in gangs. Many of these risk factors are similar to involvement in other harmful activities such as youth offending or violent extremism.
Risk indicators may include:
- Becoming withdrawn from family;
- Sudden loss of interest in school – decline in attendance or academic achievement;
- Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
- Holding unexplained money or possessions;
- Staying out unusually late without reason;
- Sudden change in appearance – dressing in a particular style or 'uniform';
- Dropping out of positive activities;
- New nickname;
- Unexplained physical 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;
- Broken off with old friends and hanging around with a new group;
- Increased use of social networking sites;
- Starting to adopt codes of group behaviour e.g. ways of talking and hand signs;
- Going missing;
- Being found by Police in towns or 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;
- Being concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhood.
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, who will work alongside Social Care/Early Help and will look at immediate risk of harm, and then decide the correct, if any, intervention and support to be offered to that individual.
5. Referral and Assessment
Anyone with concerns about a young person's involvement in a gang, where there is an immediate threat of harm, should report directly to the Police on 999. Following this a referral to Children’s Social Care should be made to enable an assessment of risk to be carried out and professional support to be provided to the young person and their families. Anyone seeking advice around concerns can contact the NSPCC 24-hour helpline (0800 800 500).
The helpline is funded by the Home Office, and is available to help parents, carers or any other adult worried about a child or young person at risk from gang-related activity. This includes children and young people who are not themselves in a gang, but may be at risk of being targeted by gang members.
Early support may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to risk of involvement in gang activity.
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 the local authority's Children's Social Care Service for the area in which the child is currently located or the police if a young person is in immediate danger.
In line with safeguarding procedures as outlined in Working Together 2018, if a Single Assessment is indicated it should be led by a lead professional or an experienced social worker. As always, evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies will be key. It may be appropriate for the lead professional or social worker to be embedded in or work closely with, a team (for example in the Police or Youth Justice Service), which has access to 'real time' gang intelligence in order to undertake a reliable assessment. Careful involvement of parents or carers is required as they may be a useful source of information to assess the risk of harm but may condone their child's involvement in gangs.
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 this information 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, or they present to an Accident and Emergency department with an injury that may indicate serious youth violence is a factor) Safeguarding processes should be implemented. 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.
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 and risk assessment/planning should be considered for managing the contextual risk to young people.
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.It is particularly important that girls and young women who have been sexually abused or exploited by gang members have access to appropriate support and counselling, in an environment where they feel safe and secure such as the West Yorkshire SARC at The Hazelhurst Centre.
6. Support and Interventions
Support and interventions should be proportionate and based on the child's needs identified during assessment but it is important to remember that this can be a worrying time for individuals and they may not always be receptive of support services, therefore building trust is vital. Interventions will range from family-based / multi-agency interventions, targeted youth support, acceptable behaviour contracts / agreements, peer mentoring to initiating Care Proceedings as this is where an individual is considered to be at a serious risk of harm and considerations should be made around their safety.
Gang Injunctions are a civil tool that allows the police or a local authority to apply to the County Court, High Court or Youth Court for an injunction against an individual to prevent gang-related violence and gang-related drug dealing, by imposing a range of prohibitions and requirements on the respondent. A gang injunction aims:
- To prevent the respondent from engaging in, or encouraging or assisting, gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing activity; and/or
- To protect the respondent from gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing activity.
Over the medium and longer term, gang injunctions aim to break down violent gang culture, prevent the violent behaviour of gang members from escalating and engage gang members in positive activities to help them leave the gang. Gang injunctions can also be used to help protect people, in particular children, from being drawn further into more serious activity.
Anyone seeking to apply for an injunction must have evidence that the respondent has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing; and will need to be able to prove this on the balance of probabilities at court. Applicants will also need to convince the court that the gang injunction is necessary to prevent the respondent from being involved in gang-related violence and gang-related drug dealing.Local children's services who have legal responsibilities for safeguarding and child protection should always be involved in discussions regarding a potential gang injunction for a 14 to 17 year old and to advise what action it would be appropriate to take to ensure the safety of the young person and to protect them from significant harm. For further information please see the Statutory Guidance and Practitioners' Guide: Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing (Home Office, 2016).
Practitioners should consider their own safety whilst working with young people and visiting a household. It may be appropriate to interview the child and the parents in a neutral setting to ensure the safety of the young person and their family. Information sharing about high risk families and individuals (such as those carrying lethal weapons) should be considered across all agencies that might have contact with the individuals concerned. Appropriate flagging alerts should be placed upon agency systems regarding potential risks.
Knife Crime Prevention Orders
Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) are preventative civil orders designed to be an additional tool that the police can use to work with young people and others to help steer them away from knife crime and serious violence by using positive requirements to address factors in their lives that may increase the chances of offending, alongside measures to prohibit certain activities to help prevent future offending.
KCPOs require a multi-agency approach. The police will need to work with relevant organisations and community groups to support those who are issued with a KCPO by the courts, to steer them away from crime.
The intention is that the orders will focus specifically on those most at risk of being drawn into knife crime and serious violence, to provide them with the support they need to turn away from violence. The focus is therefore on providing preventative interventions, rather than on punitive measures. The availability and range of positive requirements will vary between local areas. Examples include:
- Educational courses;
- Life skills programmes;
- Sporting participation – such as membership of sporting clubs or participation in group sports;
- Awareness raising courses;
- Targeted intervention programmes;
- Relationship counselling;
- Drug rehabilitation programmes;
- Anger management classes;
KCPOs can be sought for any individual aged 12 upwards. The aim is to prevent the most at- risk or vulnerable individuals from becoming involved in knife possession and knife crime. It is the intention that KCPOs issued to under 18s should be subject to more scrutiny than those issued to adults (for example, through more regular reviews) and will be subject to consultation with youth offending teams. Weapon awareness and reduction working in locality based projects is also worthy of consideration and use such as Bradford Youth Justice Services ‘Behind the Blade’ programme aimed at the intervention and prevention of criminalisation of known or suspected weapon carriers.
7. Further Information
Knife, Gun and Gang Crime (Home Office)
The Centre for Social Justice: Girls and Gangs
Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Drug Dealing (Home Office) May 2016
Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing A Practitioners' Guide Revised Guidance May 2016
Preventing Gang and Youth Violence: Spotting Signals of Risk and Supporting Children and Young People
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.
County Lines - Gang Violence Exploitation and Drug Supply (NCA 2018)
Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence (Catch 22, 2017)
Children's Voices - A review of Evidence on the Subjective Wellbeing of Children Involved in Gangs in England (Children's Commissioner, November 2017)
Knife Crime Prevention Orders Practitioners' Guidance and Framework Guidance