Report author Children's Commissioner for England, February 2019
As part of the study, 25 local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) in "high risk" areas were asked about their response to gang violence and criminal exploitation, including their estimates of the numbers of children subject to, or at risk of, gang exploitation. Responses showed:
- Many areas have no information on levels of gang activity or risk among children in their area.
- Areas identified as having the highest levels of gang violence often have the least information about the issue.
- Most areas identify only a handful of children who they believed to be experiencing, or at risk of, gang exploitation.
- Only one area could provide an estimate as to the scale of gang exploitation of children.
- Children exploited by gangs are too often viewed as the perpetrators of crime, with little or no acknowledgement of the abusive, exploitative and violent situations they suffer.
Additionally, the report suggests LSCBs are failing to properly investigate child deaths where gang violence is a factor. It concludes that this failure means there is little evidence to suggest lessons are learned when it comes to protecting other children.
The mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to child sexual exploitation a decade ago are now being repeated in relation to gang exploitation.
The report calls on professionals to "learn from the mistakes of child sexual exploitation". This includes ensuring children subjected to gang exploitation are viewed as "victims" not "criminals".
The report highlights that new local safeguarding arrangements, focusing on contextual safeguarding, have the potential to bring about a shift in approach, but currently there are few adequate processes in place.
While the research arrives at an estimate of the number of children subject to gang exploitation in England, it is limited by the quality of data sources. The report acknowledges some key issues with the data sources drawn on.
Estimates around children affected by gang exploitation are always likely to underestimate the scale of the problem. Further research is required to understand gang exploitation affecting children not currently identified, or under-represented in services, to develop responses to their needs.
The report also identifies a range of indicators and vulnerabilities considered to make children more susceptible to gang exploitation. However, these factors, and the drivers of exploitation more generally, are not well evidenced or understood, and should be treated with caution.
It is important to recognise that children from any background can be groomed and coerced by gangs, and that children may not show any apparent signs of exploitation. Exploitation occurs because perpetrators have access to, and power over, children, and protective structures fail to intervene to prevent exploitation.
There is currently limited data collation across the country, with inconsistencies between agencies, and variations between geographical locations. Therefore, scale and nature of the threats are difficult to understand, and patterns and trends overlooked.
Implications for practice
As noted in the report, there is much to learn from responses to child sexual exploitation over the last decade.
- Ensuring children subject to gang exploitation are viewed as victims, rather than as criminals, will enable better recognition of the impact of gang exploitation, and encourage more appropriate safeguarding responses. Some children being exploited will also be used to exploit others. This must not negate their own victimisation experiences and the levels of risk they face. They must still be recognised as children who require a safeguarding response.
- The impact of violence and trauma activates a child's survival response, and behaviours must be viewed through a trauma lens. Children who are being exploited often do not see it themselves and can normalise high levels of harm, are unable to see the levels of risk they are exposed to, or, if they do, they are unable to verbalise it. Professionals in these cases need to intervene with a targeted, persistent, and robust safeguarding response, even where children resist and appear to be "making choices" to return to perpetrators.
- It is vital to recognise the limited choices and levels of autonomy many children impacted by exploitation have - particularly when perpetrator access and opportunity is high, and protective structures absent. Children cannot choose to be exploited; the very nature of grooming and coercion removes choice.
- While the building of long-term, trusting relationships is critical, it is inappropriate to tackle gang exploitation solely through focusing on children's behaviour and resilience. An effective approach requires consideration of wider context, taking into account all those in a child's network. Understanding local gang context is one aspect of this.
Barnardo's, the UK's leading children's charity, has more than a thousand services. It is seeing increasing numbers of cases of children at risk of multiple dangers, including sexual and criminal exploitation