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Keeping kids safe

Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation

This report investigates what it means to be a child gang member in England. It estimates how many children in England are in gangs, and looks at the risks factors which make it more likely for a child to end up being groomed for gang membership. Finally, it questions whether those responsible for safeguarding children are responding adequately to the rise in gang violence and how children can better be kept safe. I have been shocked to discover that many of those responsible for the protection of children in their local areas seem to have no idea where to start, despite hundreds of thousands of children being at risk. In this, I draw parallels with CSE a decade ago – before children being sexually exploited were recognised as victims and not perpetrators, and the adults supposed to protect them stopped turning a blind eye to widescale abuse.

Our research presented here 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. Their experiences vary widely. For some, being in a gang entails little more than putting a hashtag on social media. For others it can be far more serious and dangerous. Many of the children who identify as gang members feel they have no choice or no better options. Some are groomed and exploited by gangs but never identify as members. Often it is these children, described to me once as ‘collateral’, who are the most vulnerable and at risk.

What our research shows is the vulnerability in these children’s lives. Often they come from families with substance or alcohol abuse problems or where there is domestic violence. They may grow up neglected, in poor housing, sometimes with family members who are associated with gangs or criminal activity. These are children who are more likely to suffer from poor mental health and are more likely to have Special Educational Needs. They are also more likely to be excluded from school. And far from the bold and aggressive stereotype image of a gang member, I have been struck by how visibly fragile many appear in person. It is very clear to me that we are not doing enough to protect them from harm.

Last year, the inspectorates of the police, health, probation and children’s services made a joint call to agencies responsible working with children to “learn from the mistakes of child sexual exploitation” by “treating children as victims not perpetrators” and “not to underestimate the levels of criminal exploitation in their local areas”. This report shows that those calls have not been heeded. Instead, I find that all the mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to CSE in towns up and down the country are now being repeated. 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.

Tackling gang exploitation needs a paradigm change in thinking, which stops treating these children as criminals responsible for their own situation and instead sets out to protect them.