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Briefing report on the roundtable on children who go missing and are criminally exploited by gangs

Children and young people who go missing from home or care are at serious risk of being targeted for involvement in gangs, trafficking, criminalisation, sexual exploitation and violence. Recognising the risk at the time child is reported as missing and offering a child appropriate support on return may prevent the situation escalating and further exploitation of vulnerable children and young people.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing and Runaway Children and Adults decided to bring together experts in the field to discuss how these vulnerable children can be better protected.

The aim of the round table was to develop better understanding of this type of exploitation, the links with missing and the responses from professionals to this vulnerable group. The goal was to develop a number of recommendations for changes needed to improve those responses.

This APPG’s Inquiry into safeguarding of absent children, held in 2016, highlighted how risks of grooming for criminal exploitation by gangs are not routinely identified when a child is reported missing to the police and how children, particularly boys, get categorised as being at ‘no apparent risk’ and left without response until the risks escalate.

Worryingly, vulnerable children and young people who are trafficked and exploited by gangs to distribute drugs are still too often perceived to have ‘made a choice’ and are therefore criminalised rather than safeguarded and recognised as victims of the gangs who control them. The needs of children targeted by gangs and risks to their safety and wellbeing are not recognised by professionals responding to children who go missing.

Patterns of grooming of children for criminal exploitation are very similar to those of sexual exploitation. In the past, child sexual exploitation was often perceived amongst professionals as the victim’s fault, or due to their risky behaviour3. We believe that in some areas of the UK a similar culture currently exists around criminal exploitation by gangs. It is important that professionals start seeing young people who are involved in gangs as potential victims of exploitation or trafficking and that all young people under 18 are considered children, are treated as such, and are safeguarded by society.Even where children are identified as vulnerable the response is often not appropriate to the situation and intervention is not successful. These issues are further compounded when involved agencies don’t work together effectively, which undermines the efficacy of the intervention. This leads to the child or young person continuing to be exploited and becoming further embedded within gang activity.