3.5.5 Gangs

AMENDMENT

In October 2020 this new chapter replaced a previous chapter on Gang Activity.

1. Introduction

There are a number of areas in which young people are put at risk by gang activity, both through participation in and as victims of gang violence which can be in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household. A child who is affected by gang activity or serious youth violence may have suffered, or may be likely to suffer, significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect. See Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure.

2. Definition of Gangs and Gang Members

It is important that all agencies in Sheffield work to a baseline 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.

We know that groups of children often gather together in public places to socialise, and peer association is an essential feature of most children's transition to adulthood. Groups of children can be disorderly and/or anti-social without engaging in criminal activity.

Defining a gang is difficult, but following a peer review provided through the Home Office Ending Gang and Youth Violence programme in 2012 the following definition has been adopted

"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.

Children may be involved in more than one 'gang', with some cross-border movement, and may not stay in a 'gang' for significant periods of time. Children rarely use the term 'gang', instead they used terms such as 'family', 'breddrin', 'crews', 'cuz' (cousins), 'my boys' or simply 'the people I grew up with'. However, it is also important to note that definitions may need to be highly specific to particular areas or neighbourhoods if they are to be useful. Furthermore, professionals should not seek to apply this or any other definition of a gang too rigorously; if a child or others think s/he is involved with or affected by 'a gang', then a professional should act accordingly.

We know that violence is a way for gang members to gain recognition and respect by asserting their power and authority in the street, with a large proportion of street crime perpetrated against members of other gangs or the relatives of gang members. Youth violence, serious or otherwise, may be a function of gang activity. However, it could equally represent the behaviour of a child acting individually in response to his or her particular history and circumstances.

Organised Criminal Groups

An Organised criminal group (OCG) is a group of individuals normally led by adults for whom involvement in crime is for personal gain (financial or otherwise). This involves serious and organised criminality by a core of violent gang members who exploit vulnerable young people 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. It is a tactic used by groups or gangs to facilitate the selling of drugs in an area outside of the area in which they live, often coordinated by mobile phone and reducing their risk of detection. It almost exclusively involves violence, intimidation and the offer of money or drugs. Young people can become indebted to gang/groups and exploited in order to pay off debts. Young people may be going missing and travelling to market or seaside towns often by rail but sometimes car or coach. They may have unexplained increases in money or possessions. Young men and women may be at risk of sexual exploitation in these groups.

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. Activity can include street gangs involvement in drug dealing on behalf of organised criminal groups and the sexual abuse of girls and boys by organised criminal groups.

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 10, 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.

See also County Lines Exploitation Practice guidance for YOTs and frontline practitioners Published by the Ministry of Justice on 1 October 2019.

Where there are concerns that children are victims of child criminal exploitation they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism. See: Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines (The Home Office). Updated 7 February 2020.

3. Understanding why Young People Join Gangs

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that young people join gangs for a number of different reasons. There are numerous reasons that can drive a child away from what should be a normal childhood and push them towards gangs. However, the overwhelming pull factor is the feeling that a young person “needs to belong”. Young people see gangs as their ‘family’, ‘crew’ ‘breddrin’, a place of acceptance and protection. As safeguarding professionals, this is the main challenge, giving young people a purpose and making them feel that they are valued members of our society.

Therefore any strategy to prevent them from doing so must be multi-faceted. Spotting the signs that a young person is being drawn into gang is a key element to prevention.

We must 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 crime (GOV.UK)).

4. Indicators of Involvement in Gang Activity

Certain groups of children are more vulnerable and likely to be drawn into gang culture and professionals should be able to recognise when a young person is susceptible to risk of gang involvement. Many of the common indicators are also signs for other types of harmful activity, e.g. child sexual exploitation, county lines and missing. There are however, some significant indicators to identify where a young person may be vulnerable to being drawn into gang culture, and also signs that imply that a person is already involved with a gang.

Vulnerability Indicators

Home Environment

  • A child who comes from an unstable family environment or where there is conflict between parents/siblings;
  • Has suffered neglect, maltreatment, physical or sexual abuse;
  • Absence of any parental attachment to the child and a lack of emotional care;
  • Whose parent(s) do not provide positive role model behaviours; are unable to communicate effectively with the child; provide poor discipline; do not give guidance or set proper boundaries;
  • Whose parents replace positive discipline with uncaring harsh or violent punishment;
  • Has a parent(s) who has alcohol, substance, drug or mental health issues;
  • Has witnessed domestic violence or violent conflict;
  • Comes from a broken home, is separated from a parent or has a parent in prison;
  • Lives with a gang member or who has family members involved in gang activity and criminality;
  • Is exposed to violent media.

Personal

  • Who has suffered traumatic life experiences;
  • Has a low academic achievement, significant levels of truancy and unauthorised absences; has a poor attendance record or is regularly excluded from school (school exclusion is a high vulnerability factor);
  • Is within the care system; and/or is historically involved with social services;
  • Has a history of missing (research shows that the peak ages of running away and becoming involved with gangs are the same – 15 years);
  • Feels socially isolated; is bullied or bully’s others;
  • Has learning disabilities or difficulties;
  • Has mental health issues, depression or behavioural problems;
  • Is vulnerable to peer pressure and intimidation;
  • Has poor self-esteem;
  • Has a lack of ethnic identity or feels socially isolated with no support;
  • Is unable to regulate own emotions and behaviour, displays anger and resentment towards society or demonstrates physical violence and aggression;
  • Has alcohol or drug issues.

Community

  • Lives in an area with high gang activity;
  • Has become involved in antisocial and criminal behaviour early, which has led to persistent offending and juvenile convictions;
  • Associates with friends, peers who are involved in antisocial and aggressive behaviour;
  • Lives in an area where drugs are readily available; or is exposed to drug use;
  • Lives in areas with high levels of poverty, unemployment, social housing and crime;
  • Comes from communities who have experienced war situations prior to arrival in the UK or groups more likely to tolerate crime;
  • Has no positive role models in the community;
  • Comes from an area which lacks diversionary activities (e.g. youth services);
  • Lacks aspirations, has little or no job prospects, is likely to become unemployed;
  • Attends a school where gang recruitment is known to occur;
  • Has no or little of access to productive social activities and opportunities;
  • Has disengaged from support services.

Issues and behaviours possibly indicative of involvement in gang activity include:

  • Becomes secretive, becomes distant or has withdrawn from family;
  • Deteriorating behaviour; increased rule breaking, aggression, and threatening behaviour;
  • Has broken off relationships with old friends and has begun to associate with a new group of young people (may even display aggression towards previous friends);
  • Drops out of positive activities;
  • Has a sudden loss of interest in school, begins to truant and has noticeable decline in academic achievement;
  • Stays out unusually late, begins to go missing or has unauthorised absences;
  • Has begun to talk about a particular individual or persons who they seem to hold in esteem and appears to be influencing them;
  • Noticeable changes in appearance. Begins to dress in a particular style or appears to be wearing ‘colours’ or a logo (specific uniform) similar to the group they associate with. Many gangs wear particular items of clothing that identify them collectively and set them apart from rival gangs. This wearing of clothes can be subtle and not noticeable e.g. the angle or how an item of clothing is worn, particular brands, a colour, symbols or jewellery;
  • Has multiple mobiles or regularly changes mobile devices;
  • Has started using new or unknown slang words or uses unusual hand signals to communicate with friends – some gangs have their own terminology and way of greeting each other, either verbally or by hand signs;
  • Has specific drawings or tags on everyday objects such as clothes, bedroom doors, furniture, walls, school books – graffiti is often used to mark a gang’s territory, their dominance of the area, having the added advantage of intimidating and causing fear in the people that live in the area;
  • Has unexplained money, expensive clothing, jewellery and possessions –certain jewellery, symbols and clothes can also be an indicator of membership or affiliation with a specific gang;
  • Has an unusual interest in gangster-influenced music, videos, movies, or websites that glorify weapons and gang culture;
  • Have images/videos of themselves ‘glorifying’ their gang membership – many gang members keep photographs featuring themselves and fellow gang members, often posing with cash, champagne and weapons. Where possible professionals should check a young person’s social media accounts or phones for images;
  • Has obtained new tattoos, or purpose made scars or burn marks – specific tattoos, scar or burn patterns/designs can indicate gang affiliation;
  • Has a new nickname –gang members often (but not always) have a street name which is normally derived from a personal trait, their physical appearance or an action the may have carried out;
  • Is showing signs of drug use;
  • Is committing criminal offences – shoplifting, robbery, drugs (street robbery as a first-time entry into the criminal justice system can be a significant factor);
  • Is getting into fights; has unexplained physical injuries and/or refuses to seek medical treatment;
  • Has started carrying a weapon;
  • Is concerned about the presence of unknown youths in the area, scared of or refuses to enter certain areas.

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

5. Protection and Action to be Taken

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 Gang Risk Factors, it is important to Safeguard and Promote their Welfare. Prompt action may prevent them from being harmed or from harming others. Remember A child who is affected by gang activity or serious youth violence may have suffered, or may be likely to suffer, significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect. See Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure.

If any practitioner believes that a child or young person is at risk of, or is being exploited, the Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool needs to be completed. The screening tool is designed to be used by all professionals working with children and their parents or carers. A child is defined as a person who is under 18 years of age.

The Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool does not replace existing multi-agency safeguarding arrangements that are in place in Sheffield. If you have safeguarding and child protection concerns about a child’s welfare then you should contact the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub to discuss.

This tool will help you to make an initial judgement regarding the risk of child exploitation; it is neither a specialist assessment or referral form. The tool will help practitioners to focus on the specific child exploitation (CE) evidence, indicators, existing safety and vulnerabilities, and determine whether further investigations are needed by Children’s Social Care or referral to another prevention and early intervention service.

When you are considering a referral to the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub (Children's Social Care) or sharing your concerns with the child’s allocated social worker, this screening tool should form the basis of those discussions and your professional analysis.

Practitioners need to exercise their professional judgement when using this tool because factors such as the child’s age, additional vulnerabilities, their history, may mean that the child is more vulnerable to CE. Professional judgement also includes concerns that you can evidence as well as concerns based ‘gut feeling’. It is important that you differentiate between the two and provide explanation and rationale. It is important to include the child’s strengths and existing safety so that this can be considered.

Engagement with the Child

Efforts should be made to engage with the child. It may be a ‘big ask’ for a child to talk about their gang activities for several reasons – fear around their own safety, fears and concerns for their family’s safety, fear of revealing crimes that they may have committed during their gang association.

If the child is willing to talk about gang involvement, professionals should always take seriously what the child says. Breaking away from a gang is a massive challenge for a child. The push factors will still be there, as will the pull factors, with the added complication of the absolute certainty that there will be some retribution from the gang if they were to break ties, which could ultimately lead to severe injury or death.

This initial engagement may be the only opportunity to demonstrate that there are people that care and give them the hope that they can escape and live a positive lifestyle.

Although currently there is limited research into what interventions work and are the most impactive when trying to divert young people away from gangs and serious youth violence. We do know that investment of time and effort in building trust and rapport with young people and children does make an impact and results in positive change. Having someone who the child can relate to and who they see as understanding, combined with a persistent and consistent approach appears to be key to successful intervention.

See also Amber Project.