5.19 Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May be Affected by Gang Activity

Currently under review....


This chapter summarises Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May be Affected by Gang Activity published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2010.

This non-statutory guidance is intended for frontline practitioners across the children’s workforce to help them understand the nature of the risk that gang activity poses to children both through participation in and as victims of gang violence, how signs of gang involvement may manifest themselves and how to deal with such issues.

This guidance is supplementary to Working Together to Safeguard Children 2023 and the guidance produced under the Tackling Gangs Action Programme (TGAP) in 2007/08, Tackling Gangs: A Practical Guide.

The risk posed by gangs varies across the country and the guidance document provides case studies of processes which have been established in some areas to addresses local issues.

This chapter was added to this manual in May 2015.

1. Introduction

Addressing the problem of gang involvement is a multi-agency issue; partnership working and information sharing is therefore a key to safeguarding children and young people at risk of gang-related harm.

Young people are put at risk by gang activity both through participation in and as victims of gang violence.

Overall, children particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in the gang context are those who are:

  1. Not involved in gangs, but living in an area where gangs are active, which can have a negative impact on their ability to be safe, health, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being;
  2. Not involved in gangs, but at risk of becoming victims of gangs;
  3. Not involved in gangs but at risk of becoming drawn in, for example, siblings or children of known gang members; or
  4. Gang-involved and at risk of harm through their gang-related activities (e.g. drug supply, weapon use, sexual exploitation and risk of attack from own or rival gang members).

Victims and offenders are often the same people. When adults treat a young person as just a victim or just an offender, they are not taking into account the complex, cyclical nature of the victim-offender link and the factors that influence young people’s lives.

2. Definition of a Gang

Being part of a friendship group is a normal element of growing up and it can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Although some group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a gang.

The Pyramid of Gang Involvement on page 13 of the government guidance sets out a tiered approach to defining gangs.

A gang is defined as a “relatively durable group who have a collective identity and meet frequently. They are predominantly street-based groups of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible groups for whom crime and violence is integral to the groups’ identity.”

The guidance focuses on safeguarding those children and young people at Level 2, i.e. those on the cusp of/vulnerable to making the transition to gang involvement as well as those already involved in gangs.

At the top level (Level 3) are organised criminal gangs, composed principally of adult men. At the bottom level (Level 1) are peer groups.

The evidence from intelligence and analysis suggests that gangs are predominantly male with an average age of 20 and extensive criminal histories with the average age of a first conviction of 15.

The TGAP found that there has been a noticeable and significant lowering of the age profile of recognised gang members. Issues of respect, territory and gang identity often motivate these young gang members. They may engage in a lower level of criminality to begin with, including street robbery, burglary, assault and anti-social behaviour.

3. Gang-Related Activity – What is the Risk?

Local evidence-gathering and profiling of local gang problems will be needed to establish what the risks are in a particular area. The TGAP Practice Document (see Tackling Gangs: A Practical Guide) offers an easy to follow guide on ways to profile gangs in local areas.

Practitioners should consider the risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons, drugs, and sexual exploitation.

Young people who are involved in gangs are more like to suffer harm themselves, through retaliatory violence, displaced retaliation, territorial violence with other gangs or other harm suffered whilst committing a crime. Young people involved in gangs are more likely to possess and use weapons, both knives and guns. Evidence shows that those carrying weapons are more likely to become victims of weapon attacks and the risk of being seriously injured increases in group situations. There is some evidence to suggest younger children carrying or using guns and of girls and young women being used to carry guns on behalf of gang members.

Gangs use violence to assert their power and authority in a local area and may have to assert their power in relation to other gangs in the area. This is why so much gang-related crime and violence is perpetrated against other members of gangs and their relatives and rarely against the police or other public sector employees. In some cases, violence may also be directed against, or required of, a gang’s own member as a part of belonging to that group.

Dealing with drugs can also bring gang members into organized crime and can increase the threat of violent situations. Some gang members deal in drugs either as a way to make money or to fund their own use of drugs.

According to Female Voice in Violence there has been an increase in female members in gangs. There is often pressure for girls associated with young boys in gangs to ‘link’ with gang members to attain status, for their own protection and perhaps to benefit from a criminal lifestyle. Some girls adopt an antagonist role within gangs. See Female Voice in Violence Project – Home.

Safeguarding principles should be a priority for girls who are sexually exploited and abused, which can be a particular risk for girls associated with or targeted by gang members, but it may also affect male gang members. The risk of sexual exploitation and abuse has been highlighted in some local areas and should always be considered as a risk when assessing individuals and when developing a local profile of gangs. For example rape by gang members, as a form of retaliation or as an act of violence, is said to occur quite frequently in some areas and reports to the police are rare due to fear of intimidation or reprisal. This may also be a risk for siblings and other family members of female gang members.

Some children and young people are at risk of exposure to or involvement with groups or individuals who condone violence as a means to political end. Violent extremist causes range from animal rights to far right politics to international terrorism.

Practitioners should bear in mind when assessing either victims or perpetrators of crime of the potential for young people to become involved in gangs and gang-related violence as a result of being a victim of crime.

Research has shown that victims of crime can become offenders because of their experience. Retaliation and the need for respect can be factors in the progression from victim to offender; carrying a weapon following an attack can help a young person to rebuild respect, as well as offering a feeling of personal protection.

4. Identification and Risk Factors

There are particular risk factors and triggers that young people experience in their lives that can lead to them becoming involved in gangs. Many of these risk factors are similar to involvement in other harmful activities such as youth offending or violent extremism.

Risk factors for a person becoming involved in gangs are illustrated in the assessment triangle on page 19 of the government guidance.

Risk indicators may include:

  • Becoming withdrawn from family;
  • Sudden loss of interest in school – decline in attendance or academic achievement;
  • Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
  • Holding unexplained money or possessions;
  • Staying out unusually late without reason;
  • Sudden change in appearance – dressing in a particular style or ‘uniform’;
  • Dropping out of positive activities;
  • New nickname;
  • Unexplained physical injuries;
  • Graffiti style tags on possessions, school books, walls;
  • Constantly talking about another young person who seems to have a lot of influence over them;
  • Broken off with old friends and hanging around with a new group;
  • Increased use of social networking sites;
  • Starting to adopt codes of group behaviour e.g. ways of talking and hand signs;
  • Expressing aggressive or intimidating views towards other groups of young people some of whom may have been friends in the past;
  • Being scared when entering certain areas;
  • Being concerns by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhood.

This is not an exhaustive list and should be used as a guide, amended as appropriate in light of local knowledge of the risk factors in a particular area.

5. Referral and Assessment

The Family Support Process (FSP) may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to risk of involvement in gang activity.

Please refer to Identification and Referral Flowchart on page 28 of the Government Guidance.

Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm as a consequence of gang activity should contact the Local Authority’s Children’s Social Care Service or police for the area in which the child is currently located.

The Assessment should be led by a qualified and experienced social worker. As always, evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies will be key. It may be appropriate for the social worker to be embedded in or work closely with, a team, which has access to ‘real time’ gang intelligence in order to undertake a reliable assessment. Careful involvement of parents or carers is required as they may be a useful source of information to assess the risk of harm but may condone their child’s involvement in gangs.

Practitioners should be aware that children who are Looked After by the Local Authority can be particularly vulnerable to becoming involved in gangs. There may be a need to review their Care Plan in light of this information and to provide additional support.

Where there is a risk to the life of a child or the likelihood of Significant Harm, emergency action might be necessary to secure the immediate safety.

It is particularly important that girls and young women who have been sexually abused or exploited by gang members have access to appropriate support and counselling, in an environment where they feel safe and secure.

An Osman Warning (a warning given following intelligence received about a threat to life) is so named after the Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) ECHR 101 (28 October 1998) which placed a positive obligation on the authorities to take preventative measures to protect an individual whose life was at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. In the context of gangs, this may occur as a result of gang rivalry or because of an incident occurring within a young person’s own gang (for example, threatening to leave or refusing to commit an act of violence). Any Osman Warning should result in an automatic referral to Children’s Social Care, the initiation of a Strategy Discussion and consideration of the need for immediate safeguarding action, unless to do so would place the child at greater risk. In these cases, the decision not to refer should be actively reviewed to allow a referral to Children’s Social Care to be made at an appropriate stage.

6. Support and Interventions

Support and interventions should be proportionate, rational and based on the child’s needs identified during assessment. The diagram on page 28 of the government guidance sets out the areas of intervention for the different tiers of need based on the risk factors identified. These will range from family-based/multi agency interventions, youth inclusion projects, peer mentoring to initiating Care Proceedings.

Practitioners should consider their own safety whilst working with young people and visiting a household. It may be appropriate to interview the child and the parents in a neutral setting. Information sharing about high risk families and individuals (such as those carrying lethal weapons) should be considered across all agencies that might have contact with the individuals concerned.