The failings that led to child sex grooming scandals are being repeated today with “ruthless” gangs luring thousands of vulnerable children into violence, a major report has warned.
The study calls for the government to make the estimated 27,000 children, mostly between the ages of 10 and 17, that have been armed and made vulnerable to violence and drug trades by criminal gangs in Britain a “national priority”.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said she was “fearful” that these children, many from a background of mental health issues, abuse and neglect, were falling through the cracks of authorities as the warning signs of sex gang scandals flashed again.
When you sit down and speak to some of these youths, they’re lost. A lot of them don’t know who they are or what they want to do.
Anne Longfield, The Children’s Commissioner for England
Ms Longfield highlighted that criminal gangs were using similar complex techniques to the Rotherham, Oxford and Huddersfield sex gangs to entice young people in through “inducements”, before making them fearful to leave using “chilling levels of violence”.
“What we found in this report is that there’s very little information and knowledge about the numbers of children in gangs, or indeed the help they either are getting or could get,” she told Sky News:
“I am worried that the failings from child sexual exploitation a decade ago aren’t being learnt. And yet again, there could be a huge number of children who are at extreme risk, who aren’t getting the support they need.”
How Big Is The Problem?
Highlighting the scale of the problem and the abuse of civil liberties, the report finds that 313,000 children know a gang member, and of these 34,000 have experienced violent crime.
Only 6,500 of these children are actually on the watch of authorities, the study found, using figures from the Office for National Statistics annual crime survey.
“Many local areas are not facing up to the scale of the problem,” Ms Longfield said, pointing to low attendance at school and arriving at A&E with knife wounds as warning signs that are being ignored.
For many children, involvement in these gangs is not a voluntary act.
Children’s Commissioner Report
Is There Any Support?
Credit: John Leach/Flickr
Yet support was lacking for those parents that did reach out, and for the children caught in a spiral of violence, charity Barnardo’s said that lack of government provision meant “help is rarely offered before they reach crisis point”.
While some gang members were entranced by the small inflows of cash that could be reaped from drugs sales, others saw it as a social community and did not engage in violent crime at all.
“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.”
Seriously stretched police and social workers are struggling to support growing numbers of children with complex needs
Credit: Daiga Ellaby/Unsplash
One former gang member, Richard, 23, who joined when he was 16, told Sky News that the status gained from earning the respect of senior gang leaders encouraged many young people to join.
“When you sit down and speak to some of these youths, they’re lost. When I mean lost, in the sense of, they’re literally following and going along with it. A lot of them don’t know who they are or what they want to do.
“They just want to do what seems to be cool and on top of that to be fair there’s nothing really to do.”
But for Sarah, who joined aged 12, what initially was an addiction to earning money from selling “the tiniest bit of weed”, soon escalated.
I was violent, I was just a horrible person.
Sarah, gang member at 12
“We were still both innocent to what was happening because we still both didn’t really understand what was going on,” she told BBC News, under a pseudonym.
She soon “hated” herself as she began “sleep[ing] with someone just to get money or just to get a bit of weed”.
“I was violent, I was just a horrible person.”
Ms Longfield told BBC Radio 4: “Rather than seeing this as a lifestyle choice that these children are involved in, I want people to see that they are vulnerable children that are being groomed and need protecting.”
Credit: Warren Wong/Unsplash
Authorities must understand how coercion and grooming has lured and trapped these children into committing crime.
The findings come amid increasing concern over the rate of youth violence, with the number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales at its highest level since records began more than seven decades ago.
The NSPCC called for those children stuck inside these violent gangs to be addressed as victims, not culprits.
“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,” they said.
Barnardo’s, a fellow children’s charity, 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.”
Intervening In Gangs
A government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting vulnerable children by cracking down on the ruthless gangs that seek to exploit them and by offering them the support and skills they need to lead lives free of violence.
“That is why we launched the Serious Violence Strategy, which puts a greater focus on early intervention alongside a tough law enforcement response.
“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.”