UK: 27,000 children in England say they are gang members – report
There are 27,000 children aged between 10 and 17 in England who identify as being part of a gang, according to a report by the Children’s Commissioner.
It adds that 313,000 children know a gang member – and, of those, 34,000 have experienced violent crime.
Commissioner Anne Longfield said gangs were using “sophisticated techniques” to groom children and “chilling levels of violence” to keep them compliant.
The Home Office said it was “committed to protecting vulnerable children”.
According to the report, gangs “set out to prey on vulnerable children” – and those suffering from mental health issues or abuse and neglect in their family life are particularly susceptible.
Sarah – not her real name – became involved in a gang when she was 12, following a period of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.
Now 14, she told BBC Radio 5 live that she began by doing drugs such as cocaine with a gang before going on to sell drugs for them – sometimes walking for up to three hours at a time to sell “the tiniest bit of weed”.
Her brother, who is two years older than her, was also involved.
“Cos we were so young and we were getting money, we were like, ‘Yes, money’s rolling in,'” she said.
“We were still both innocent to what was happening because we still both didn’t really understand what was going on.”
But Sarah was also regularly drinking alcohol and doing drugs, and eventually reached a point where she would “sleep with someone just to get money or just to get a bit of weed”.
“It got to that stage where it was really bad and then obviously that’s when the police had to step in.”
Looking back, Sarah, who is no longer in the gang, says she “hated” who she was – “I was violent, I was just a horrible person.”
A street gang is defined as a group of young people who hang around together and have a specific area or territory, have a name or other identifier, possibly have rules or a leader, and who may commit crimes together.
Researchers said that, for some children, gang membership represents little more than a loose social connection and not all young members are involved in crime or serious violence.
“For many children, involvement in these gangs is not a voluntary act,” the report added.
“In some areas children are considered members of a gang based purely on their location, their family or their wider associations.”
Gangs have sought to diversify their recruitment as police have become better at spotting “traditional” members, the paper found.
It said techniques for recruiting children are similar to grooming for sexual abuse, starting with “inducements”.
In one case, there was said to have been a “written manual” setting out a clear timeframe for entrapment.
The report also suggested failings exposed by sex grooming scandals were being repeated – and that only about 6,500 children involved in gangs actually known to authorities.
“Many local areas are not facing up to the scale of the problem,” Ms Longfield added.
“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.”
Responding to the report, the NSPCC said: “Until recently, sexually exploited children were seen as part of the problem and complicit in joining gangs. We cannot afford to make that mistake this time around.
“When authorities come into contact with young people in criminal cases, they must understand how coercion and grooming has lured and trapped these children into committing crime.”
Fellow children’s charity Barnardo’s added: “It’s worrying that many children involved in gangs are not known to services.
“Seriously stretched police and social workers are struggling to support growing numbers of children with complex needs, and help is rarely offered before they reach crisis point.”
The Children’s Commissioner is now calling on the government to make child criminal exploitation a “national priority”.
In response, a government statement said: “We have proposed a new statutory duty on partners across education, social services and health to work together to tackle violence as part of a public health approach, and are providing £220m to support children and young people at risk of becoming involved in violence and gangs.”
When contacted by the BBC, the children’s commissioner for Northern Ireland said it did not have data on how many children were involved in gangs, adding that young people were more likely to be involved in paramilitary groups.
The commissioners for Wales and Scotland did not respond when contacted with the same request.