The pandemic is golden opportunity for gangs who prey on vulnerable children

Emily Aklan
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

While all of us have felt the impact of Covid -19, for children in care it has compounded the circumstances which make them most vulnerable.

Like the rest of the country, looked-after children have faced increased isolation and disorder as a result of isolating restrictions. The mental toll of lockdowns cannot be understated, with many reports showing increasing rates of poor mental health.

For children in care however, this loss is especially acute. Having often already faced a significant amount of trauma and disruption in their lives, looked-after young people have a heavier reliance on the structures and routine of school and extracurricular activities. They also gain more from alternative support networks such as friends or teachers, outside of the traditional family setting. 

Under lockdown restrictions however, their routines have been thrown into disarray and these crucial connections have been cut off or drastically reduced.

These factors can cause low mood, poor self-esteem and a sense of not belonging, difficulties in and of themselves – but also exactly the kind of mental health issues which make a young person more vulnerable to exploitation. 

Gangs, for example, will prey on isolated children knowing they have less people to talk to. A lonely child is more likely to accept an offer of friendship or recruitment from a gang member because it gives them a sense of belonging.

What we’ve also seen throughout the pandemic is a shift in how gang recruitment operates. While many of the routes which gangs would normally use to target children have been cut off, such as meeting them outside school gates or fast-food restaurants, other techniques have increased exponentially. 

Turning to social media, gangs are using platforms such as Snapchat to reach young people, and sending them money online as well via platforms like PayPal.

Again, this issue is exacerbated by the isolation of social distancing restrictions. The fact that targeted gang recruitment is all done on phones due to lockdown makes it even harder for those who would normally have more contact with children, like teachers or social workers, to spot the telltale signs. Many markers of exploitation, such as a child being absent from school, new expensive clothes or a rejection of old friends, aren’t fit for purpose in a lockdown scenario.

To combat the threat of gang recruitment to vulnerable children in care we need to combat the isolation with connection. Projects like mentoring schemes focus on building young people’s self-esteem and confidence so they are less likely to fall prey to exploitation. It's by no means a panacea, but mentoring and 1 on 1 support can help give vulnerable children the tools to support their mental health.

Most crucially though in conversations about how to support children and young people, it is vital that those in care are not left behind. Gangs will gladly make the effort to target this group knowing they are more likely to be receptive. We must be proactive in our reactions and support in this pandemic to battle the epidemic of gang exploitation from poor mental health.

Emily Aklan is chief executive of Serenity Welfare

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