Majority of child gang members unknown to councils, commissioner warns

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 27 February 2019

Child gang activity should be made a national safeguarding priority to help councils face up the scale of the problem, the children's commissioner for England has warned.

Child gangs should be a national safeguarding priority, the Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has warned. Image: Alex Deverill

Many Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) in high risk areas have no information on levels of gang activity and the risk to children, and just a fraction of children at risk from gang activity are known to authorities, according to the report, published today by commissioner Anne Longfield.

The report's publication comes as Longfield hosts a summit with LSCB chairs as well as police commissioners and senior police officers.

Longfield calls for the government and local authorities to "face up" to the scale of the problem and provide resources.

The report acknowledges a number of government initiatives to tackle serious violence, but adds that the approach is fragmented.

The study, Keeping Kids Safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation, estimates that 27,000 children in England are in gangs.

The report estimates that some 34,000 children who are gang members, or who know a gang member, have been victims of violent crime in the past year.

Of the 27,000 children who identify as being in a gang, just a quarter - 6,560 - are known to children's services or youth offending teams, the research found.

The alarming picture is partly drawn from responses from 25 LSCBs in high-risk areas, and the report claims that it is often the areas with the highest levels of gang violence that had the least information on them.

Most areas had identified only a handful of children they believed to be in gangs or at risks of gangs, and only one had an estimate of the actual scale of child gang membership.

The report also suggests safeguarding boards are frequently failing to properly investigate child deaths where gang violence was a factor.

As a result, Longfield said there is little evidence that they are learning lessons in order to protect children, and compared the failings to those which led to the child sexual exploitation scandal.

Longfield said in a statement: "The criminal gangs operating in England are complex and ruthless organisations, using sophisticated techniques to groom children, and chilling levels of violence to keep them compliant.

"At the moment it is too easy for them to succeed. Thousands of children in towns and cities across England are at risk and the same attention must be paid to protecting them as to other major threats to children.

"However, I am worried that all the mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to child sexual exploitation in towns and cities up and down the country are now being repeated.

"Many 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.

"The government and local areas need to face up to the scale of this challenge, and ensure the priority and resources are allocated to helping these children, because it is clear to me that we are not doing enough to protect them from harm."

Longfield makes the following recommendations in her report:

  • Joint inspections between Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the police and probation inspectorates should be rolled out across England, starting with the areas with high gang violence who were unable to respond to the information request for this report.
  • More emphasis on the early years within the Serious Violence Strategy, with the Department for Education setting a clear target and plan for reducing the number of children beginning school with very low levels of development, along with a national plan for improving special educational needs identification in the early years.
  • More support from the NHS, including better mental health support for children at risk of gang membership and exclusion.
  • An urgent commitment to what will replace the soon-to-expire Troubled Families programme, alongside a long-term family-based approach to supporting children at risk of gang involvement.
  • Ensuring councils have enough resources to provide the youth and early help services required to meet the needs of children at risk.

The report identifies a number of "early warning signs" that gang violence among children is on the rise:

  • Referrals to children's services where gangs were identified as an issue rose by 26 per cent between 2015/16 and 2016/1
  • Permanent exclusions rose by 67 per cent between 2012/13 and 2016/17
  • Hospital admissions for children who have been assaulted with a sharp object rose 20 per cent between 2015/16 and 2016/17
  • The number of children cautioned/convicted for possession of weapons offences rose 12 per cent between 2016 and 2017

Researchers also compared characteristics of children in gangs assessed by children's services with other children referred to social services.

They found children in gangs were 95 per cent more likely to have social and emotional health issues, were more than twice as likely to be self-harming, were 41 per cent more likely to have a parent or carer misusing substances, and were eight times more likely to be misusing substances themselves.

Councillor Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association's safer and stronger communities board, acknowledged the issue was a "significant and growing concern for councils, who take this issue extremely seriously", and echoed the commissioner's calls for more government funding.

"Children's services are now starting more than 500 child protection investigations every day, but face a £3.1 billion funding gap by 2025," added Blackburn.

"This is forcing councils to divert funding away from preventative work into services to protect children who are at immediate risk of harm.

"To help stop young people being criminally exploited or groomed, it is vital that government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils' public health budgets, which needs to be addressed in the spending review."

The Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) said that identifying children at risk was "challenging" and a "multi-agency endeavour", made harder by cuts to services.

Jenny Coles, chair of the association's families, communities and young people policy committee, said: "Despite our desire to help children at an earlier stage the sustainability of early help services is a growing concern for local authorities due to increasing levels of need in our communities."

Coles added that funding assurances for the Troubled Families Programme beyond 2020 were "vital", and to enable continued joint working.
 
She continued: "Crucially, local partners, including local authorities, the police and schools, need access to resources to develop effective local responses and to keep children safe from harm."

In October last year the government announced local authorities would be able to bid for funding from a £5m government fund to boost the work their troubled families teams do with young people involved with gangs and serious youth violence.

This followed the launch of a £200m government fund in the same month for projects supporting vulnerable young children involved in youth violence.

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