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Children affected by Gang Activity

Being part of a friendship group is a normal part of growing up and it can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Belonging to such a group can form a positive and normal part of young people’s growth and development. These groups should be distinguished from ‘street gangs’ for whom crime and violence are a core part of their identity, although ‘delinquent peer groups’ can also lead to increased antisocial behaviour and youth offending. Although some group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a gang.

Gangs tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Organised criminal group – A group of individuals for whom involvement in crime is for personal gain (financial or otherwise). For most, however, crime is their ‘occupation’. These groups operate almost exclusively in the grey and illegal marketplace where market transactions are totally unregulated by the law.
  2. ‘Street’ Gang – A relatively durable group who have a collective identity and meet frequently. They are predominantly street-based groups of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group’s identity.
  3. Peer group – A relatively small, unorganised and transient group composed of peers who share the same space and a common history. Involvement in crime will be mostly non-serious in nature and not integral to the identity of the group. School children will usually be part of a peer group.

There is often a distinct but fluid hierarchy in gangs, with individuals moving up and down the structure over time, with seniority arising from length of service in the gang. Rather than specifying what role a young person is playing in the gang, the guidance refers to those already involved in gangs and those at risk of becoming involved in gangs or being affected by gang-related activity.

The statutory guidance, Safeguarding children and young people who may be affected by gang activity, outlines the risks of gang-related activity:

  • Violence and weapons – Young people who are involved in gangs are more likely to suffer harm themselves, through retaliatory violence, displaced retaliation, territorial violence with other gangs or other harm suffered whilst committing a crime. Young people involved in gangs are more likely to possess and use weapons, both knives and guns, than non-gang members.
  • Drugs – Many gang members also deal in drugs as a way to make money, either to fund their own use of drugs or for financial gain in its own right. The use of drugs by gang members again varies from area to area, with some gang members selling drugs but not using them themselves. This again brings gang members into contact with organised crime and can increase the threat of violence and violent situations to which members are exposed.
  • Female gang members – The majority of gang members are male, although there are a number of female gang members or female gangs. Girls tend to be less willing than boys to identify themselves as gang members but tend to be drawn into male gangs as girlfriends of existing members. In such cases, girls are more likely to be marginal, often being used to carry or stash weapons and drugs. It is not known the extent to which girls in gangs are subject to violence or pressure to have sex, although girls may be particularly vulnerable in some contexts.
  • Sexual exploitation – Rape by gang members, as a form of retaliation or as an act of violence in itself, is said to occur quite frequently in some areas and reports to the police are rare due to fear of intimidation or reprisal. Female relatives of gang members could also be at particular risk of either being under pressure to have sex with gang members or of being the victim of sexual violence by another gang.
  • Violent extremism – Experience suggests that young people from their teenage years onwards can be particularly vulnerable to getting involved with radical groups, through direct contact with members or, increasingly, through the internet. This can put a young person at risk of being drawn in to criminal activity and has the potential to cause significant harm.
  • Victims – Often those young people who become offenders in gangs following victimisation have similar risk factors to those who become involved in gangs more generally. Causes of the leap from victimisation to offending can include a retaliated attack on the offender or gang, joining a rival gang to seek revenge, or making friends or joining the offending gang or other gang to seek protection.

The signs of potential involvement in gang activity include:

  • Child withdrawn from family.
  • Sudden loss of interest in school or change in behaviour. Decline in attendance or academic achievement.
  • Starting to use new or unknown slang words.
  • Holds unexplained money or possessions.
  • Stays out unusually late without reason.
  • 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.
  • Graffiti style ‘tags’ on possessions, schoolbooks, walls.
  • Constantly talking about another young person who seems to have a lot of influence over them.
  • Breaking off with old friends and hanging around with one group of people.
  • Increased use of social networking sites.
  • Starting to adopt certain codes of group behaviour, for example, 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.
  • Scared when entering certain areas.
  • Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.

Any agency or individual 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 children’s social care or the police. The Referrals Procedure should be followed.

If there is a risk to the life of the child or a likelihood of serious significant harm, agencies should secure the immediate safety of the child. Agencies with statutory child protection powers (local authorities, the police and the NSPCC) should act quickly to safeguard the child from immediate harm. Where there is a risk to the life of a child or the likelihood of significant harm, emergency action might be necessary to secure their immediate safety.

Any agency or individual practitioner who has immediate concerns to protect a child that may be at risk, should contact police directly. The police in attendance can exercise police protection powers under Section 46 Child Act 1989. This is an emergency power, which allows any police officer to protect a child who is reasonably believed to be at risk of significant harm.

Practitioners should be aware of any potential threats to a social worker’s safety during interaction with a child before, or during, the undertaking of enquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 and should make a decision on the suitability of a home visit. It may be more appropriate to interview the child and/or parents and carers in a neutral setting.

The risk of harm may also exist for other practitioners, who may be visiting a household without knowledge of the gang context, or to follow up concerns about a child’s involvement in gangs. Information-sharing about high-risk families and individuals (such as those who carry lethal weapons) should be considered across all agencies that might have interaction with that individual, such as health, children’s social care and the police. This should be submitted to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub referral process to enable information to be assessed and shared with practitioners to enable organisational risk assessments to be undertaken prior to attendance to any engagement with the individuals.