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3.4.4 Gang Activity

1. Introduction

The involvement of children and young people in gang culture in the UK is a matter of national concern. Sheffield has generally not suffered the same level of criminal gang activity as other major cities, and although it is extremely rare, there have been instances of violence and fatalities. Such deaths are a tragedy for the families, friends, communities, and no more so than for the victims themselves who died at such a young age.

For the majority of residents, Sheffield is a safe city. However, those children and young people involved in criminal gang activity may be putting themselves at risk of serious injury. In order to safeguard children and young people in the city, those at risk of being drawn into criminal gangs need to be targeted. Work with communities to help disaffected children and young people re-engage with their community needs to be conducted and the reasons behind why children and young people join gangs needs to be understood and addressed. The Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership and its partner agencies need to work creatively to reduce gang membership, using preventative measures. A Child Criminal Exploitation Team is in the process of being launched and will respond to this issue as part of the wider work on Contextual Safeguarding across partners. Information on referral pathways etc. will be included at the next update.

2. Purpose

Whilst the deaths of young people are the worst possible outcomes of gang related violence, other violence and abuse can, and does, have a significant impact on those involved. In order to reduce the harm caused by gangs and safeguard children and young people in Sheffield, it is the responsibility of all practitioners to ensure they know what to do if they suspect a child or young person is involved, or at risk of involvement, in gang activity, particularly if weapons are implicated.

The aim of this protocol is to:

  • Provide practitioners with guidance to inform them if they suspect a child or young person is involved, or at risk of involvement in gang activity, or is in possession of a weapon;
  • Define what is a gang and gang membership, and outline the risk factors for involvement and why children and young people join gangs;
  • Ensure a coordinated response from Sheffield agencies who are concerned about a young person in relation to gang activity.

3. Definition of Gangs and Gang Members

It is important that all agencies in Sheffield work to the same definitions of gangs and gang membership. This is a key factor in raising concerns, making referrals and / or undertaking assessments. Careful consideration should be given to whom the word 'gang' or 'gang member' is applied. This is to avoid unnecessary stigmatisation and / or exaggerating the activities and behaviour of children and young people hanging around in peer groups within communities. It should be acknowledged that children and young people do like to congregate in groups and that this does not usually constitute a problem.

Following a peer review provided through the Home Office Ending Gang and Youth Violence programme in 2012 the Sheffield gangs' strategy 2012 -2015 confirmed the definition to be adopted across the city for the purpose of identifying and defining a street gang:-

"A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who:

  1. See themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;
  2. Engage in criminal activity and violence;
  3. Lay claim over territory (this is not necessary geographical territory but can include an illegal economy territory:
  4. Have some form of identifying structural feature; and
  5. Are in conflict with other similar gangs."

Trying to distinguish actual gang activity from much larger numbers of groups of young people who are collectively involved in delinquency is complicated by a number of factors. These include:

  • Young people's own claims to being a gang member to boost their credibility;
  • A label of gang or gang member attributed by others to any form of group offending by young people;
  • Groups young people are involved in may overlap, and membership is fluid;
  • Offending by groups of young people includes crimes often associated with gangs, but it also accounts for much offending by young people.

The emphasis on gang and crime prevention and tackling anti-social behaviour needs to also focus on universal provision for children and young people in Sheffield communities. This should include regular promotion of positive images of young people in the local media. It should also consider work with different generations, which promotes a greater understanding of local people of all ages.

Organised Criminal Groups and 'County Lines'

Organised criminals working together for a particular criminal activity or activities are called an Organised Crime Group (OCG). OCG structures often vary and consist of a durable core of key individuals. Around them is a cluster of subordinates, specialists and other more transient members plus an extended network of associates. OCGs are known to exploit vulnerable children and adults. This may also involve the movement and selling of drugs and money across the country, known as 'county lines' because it extends across county boundaries and is coordinated by the use of dedicated mobile phone lines. It is a tactic used by groups or gangs to facilitate the use of vulnerable people or children to sell drugs  in an area outside of the area in which they live, which reduces their risk of detection.

Selling drugs across county lines often involves the criminal exploitation of children and young people. Child criminal exploitation, like other forms of abuse and exploitation, is a safeguarding concern and constitutes abuse even if the young person appears to have readily become involved. Child criminal exploitation is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation and usually involves some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). The exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). Young people who are criminally exploited are at a high risk of experiencing violence and intimidation and threats to family members may also be made. Gangs may also target vulnerable adults and take over their premises to distribute Class A drugs in a practice referred to as 'cuckooing'.

Young people can become indebted to the gang/groups and then exploited in order to pay off debts. Young people who are criminally exploited often go missing and travel to other towns (some of which can be great distances from their home addresses). They may have unexplained increases in money or possessions, be in receipt of an additional mobile phone and receive excessive texts or phone calls. White British children are often targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection and some children may be as young as 12, although 15 to 16 years old is the most common age range. The young people involved may not recognise themselves as victims of any abuse, and can be used to recruit other young people.

It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim.

If a young person is arrested for drugs offences a long way from home in an area where they have no local connections and no obvious means of getting home, this should trigger questions about their welfare and they should potentially be considered as victims of child criminal exploitation and trafficking rather than as an offender.  Agencies also need to be proactive and make contact with statutory services in the young person's home area to share information.

Where there are concerns that children are victims of child criminal exploitation they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (see Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure).

There is a distinction between organised crime groups and street gangs based on the level of criminality, organisation, planning and control. However, there are significant links between different levels of gangs, for example  street gangs can be involved in drug dealing on behalf of organised criminal groups. Young men and women may be at risk of sexual exploitation in these groups.

See: Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines (The Home Office).

4. Understanding why Young People Join Gangs

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that young people join gangs for a number of different reasons. Therefore any strategy to prevent them from doing so must be multi-faceted. It must also directly engage with young people, and focus on what they say is the reasons behind their involvement in gangs. Successful engagement with young people needs to start from where they are, and with an approach they understand.

Reasons given by young people for joining gangs include:

  • Protection from other gang members;
  • Nothing better to do;
  • Peer pressure;
  • Defending what they regard as their territory;
  • A sense of belonging; and
  • It gives them respect, self-esteem and status among their peers (see Knife, gun and gang-related violence).

5. Gangs and Gang Membership in Sheffield

A Preventative Approach to Young People and Gangs in Sheffield (2008) noted that in Sheffield there are a large number of young people who hang about together in groups within neighbourhoods. This is typical in a number of areas in the city.

Sheffield has fewer organised criminal networks than other comparable cities. It is recognised, however, that like any other large city there remains potential for an escalation in respect of problems associated with a small number of criminal gangs who are involved in the sale of drugs and also have access to weapons. In order to prevent an increase in either the membership of individual gangs, or the number of gangs it is vital that action is taken by practitioners who are concerned about children or young people.

6. Indicators of Involvement in Gang Activity

Issues and behaviours possibly indicative of a risk of involvement in gang activity likely to be of concern include:

  • Significant negative behaviour changes;
  • Withdrawal from family members;
  • Consistently breaking parental rules;
  • Changes in type of clothing worn, e.g. style, colour, type;
  • Sporadic school attendance;
  • Gang type graffiti on school books, bags, bedroom walls etc;
  • Young person receives calls from others who refuse to identify themselves, or identify themselves by nickname only. They also may refer to the young person by a nickname;
  • Associating with known or suspected gang members;
  • Changes in language / speech e.g. started speaking street language, or content of what they talk about has changed to a suggestion of street / gang involvement;
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation, particularly of girls (as gang initiation ritual or revenge attacks by other gangs);
  • Known or suspected possession of knife or gun;
  • Known or suspected involvement in the supply of drugs.

It should be noted, however, that some of the above indicators are also behaviours commonly associated with teenagers. Care should be taken not to erroneously label a young person as being involved in gangs. Please see Local Contacts (Children's Social Care) to discuss any concerns you may have about a child or young person.

Appendix 2: Gang Risk Factors gives a comprehensive list of risk factors for children and young people becoming involved in gangs.

7. What to do if You Suspect a Child or Young Person is Involved in Gang Activity

As a practitioner there are a number of different ways in which you may come across children or young people who are involved in gangs. You may work directly with them, or with another sibling or extended family member. You may work with their parent/s or another adult, who express concern to you. You may work with a child or young person who is their friend and who is worried about what they are involved in. The concern may be that either someone is going to harm them, or that they are going to harm someone else.

If there are any concerns about a child or young person, in light of the above indicators and those listed in Appendix 2: Gang Risk Factors, it is important to Safeguard and Promote their Welfare. Prompt action may prevent them from being harmed or from harming others.

8. The Sheffield Gang Prevention Model

If you are concerned that a child or young person is at risk of, or is suffering Significant Harm, a referral should be made immediately in accordance with Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure. To refer a child or young person, the see Local Contacts should be contacted.

8.1 Siblings and Other Children and Young People at Risk

Siblings and friends of those involved in gang activity may also be at risk. This may be as violence can occur as an act of revenge, which may target family members or friends. This may place other children or young people at risk of Significant Harm. You should not, therefore under-estimate the need to consider their protection as well.

If you think the situation is an emergency, do not delay - telephone 999.

9. Acting on Concerns about a Child or Young Person

You can get advice and support from the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership website.

If there are concerns about a child or young person contact the Community Youth Teams (CYT) and they will arrange to visit the child or young person with you, and carry out an assessment at that point. The CYT worker will keep you informed of the outcome of the assessment, and any interventions that are put in place as a result. You will be part of any multi-agency meeting that arises as a result of their involvement with the CYT.

10. The Sheffield Gang Prevention Model

The Community Youth Teams (CYT) works with children and young people who do not have statutory involvement via the courts. Once the CYT and the child or young person, with the consent of their parent / carer, agrees to work together there are a number of interventions that can be employed. These include the following, as detailed in the Sheffield Gang Prevention Model:

  • Reduce the risk of young people's involvement in gang activity in the city by focusing resources on education, prevention and constructive challenge;
  • Putting the correct structures in place for individuals that are a viable alternative to gang activity;
  • Provide a supportive but challenging framework towards engaging young people;
  • Proactively and overtly targeting young people as the focus for intervention;
  • Work with parents carers schools and other services in order to engage young people and to reintegrate into mainstream services;
  • Enable young people to understand the law so that they can build bridges with the police, and teaching children about the risks associated with gang culture;
  • Increase involvement in alternative positive activities to promote protective factors and reduce risk factors;
  • Working with the community to give them a confidential forum to report concerns re weapon crime, and to empower local communities to play a greater role in reducing gang activity in their area.

11. Training

Training is essential for practitioners to develop the confidence to recognise suspected gang involvement, and know what action is required to safeguard and promote the welfare of such children and young people.

For information, please contact the Community Youth Teams, at telephone 0800 138 8381 for a confidential discussion about the type of support that you can access. Alternatively you can e mail

Appendix 1: Gang Threat Weighting

Click here to view Appendix 1: Gang Threat Weighting.

Appendix 2: Gang Risk Factors

Click here to view Appendix 2: Gang Risk Factors.

Appendix 3: Have you got what it takes? Tacking gangs and youth violence

Click here to view Appendix 3: Have you got what it takes? Tacking gangs and youth violence.

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