‘Teenagers will keep dying on our streets’ unless response to gangs is a ‘national priority’, warns Children’s Commissioner

The Children’s Commissioner has warned that “teenagers will keep dying on our streets” until there is a joined-up public health response to gangs.

Feb 8, 2021
By Paul Jacques
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield

In her latest report published at the weekend, Anne Longfield said the threat of gang exploitation shows no sign of abating and the response to youth violence must now be a “national priority”.

The Children’s Commissioner concludes that two years on from her last report into this issue, and a year after the Prime Minister promised to “cut the head off the snake” of County Lines, thousands of children are still not being kept safe.

She says the vast majority of local authorities do not have a sufficient grip on the drivers for youth violence in their areas, nor do they have a cogent strategy to reduce risk factors in vulnerable cohorts.

Her new report, Still not safe: The public health response to youth violence, highlights a “series of missed opportunities” to protect those at risk. It reveals how a lack of coordination between different agencies responsible for helping to keep vulnerable children safe is failing to prevent thousands of children from falling through gaps in the education, health, justice and care systems, leaving them vulnerable to “exploitation and grooming from ruthless criminal organisations or others who seek to abuse them”.

Research published in 2019 by the Children’s Commissioner found that there were around 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation who had not been identified by services, and as such were missing out on vital support to keep them safe.

However, Ms Longfield says the number of children experiencing broader risk factors linked to exploitation is even larger: 120,000 children – one in 25 of all teens in England – are already falling through gaps in education and social care. These are children who are being excluded from school or are persistently absent – often attending alternative provision. They are children who are going missing from care, many facing a combination of factors that could leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

The report argues that often these children are not receiving the additional support they need from the State, and that interventions to reduce these vulnerabilities are key.

The Children’s Commissioner is warning that these numbers are likely to increase in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, as the crisis has increased many of the risk factors of childhood vulnerability. Moreover, she says the pandemic has meant that the most vulnerable children are even harder to identify – November saw a 12 per cent drop in referrals to children’s services, in spite of the increased risks. It seems likely that even more children at risk of exploitation are going undetected. While this report’s research was undertaken with data from before the pandemic, the Covid lockdowns are likely to have increased vulnerability further, says Ms Longfield. During the current lockdown, police report that away from the watchful eyes of teachers, bored and lonely children are increasingly at risk in parks and takeaways, with predators waiting to pounce.

The report says the way criminal gangs are constantly adapting to changing circumstances strengthens the case for a public health response which looks at children’s underlying vulnerability to criminal gangs, rather than responding to the particular form the gang are taking at one particular time.

“These gangs act like sophisticated and entrepreneurial businesses, and as we have seen many businesses adapt their models to capitalise on the pandemic, so too have criminal gangs,” said Ms Longfield.

The report praises Government’s allocation of large sums of money to combat serious violence – £35 million for violence reduction units (VRUs), £200 million to the Youth Endowment Fund over ten years, and £500 million over five years to the Youth Investment Fund, and its commitment to using a public health approach to gang violence. VRUs in particular are doing important work to deal with serious violence in the 18 areas they have been established. However, the report says insufficient attention has been paid to the need for agencies in other areas to adopt both a safeguarding and public health response across the country, working in partnership with local police forces.

The vast majority of local authorities still do not have a sufficient grip on the drivers for youth violence in their areas, nor do they have a cogent strategy to reduce risk factors in vulnerable cohorts, says Ms Longfield. Most are not tracking local school exclusions – often a trigger for a significant escalation of risk for children. Drug misuse is also a key risk factor for gang exploitation, but the numbers of children accessing drug treatment has fallen by 41 per cent nationally.

“The dire consequences of criminal exploitation and serious violence on children are clear to see – the regular toll on young lives is played out across our newspapers and TV news bulletins with depressing regularity,” said Ms Longfield. “The grim library of serious case reviews lay bare the stories of children who have come to harm, or even lost their lives.

“The common thread throughout all these cases is the series of missed opportunities, from a broad range of agencies, to intervene and protect these vulnerable children.

“Predators who seek to exploit children for financial gain will use sophisticated methods to target, groom and coerce children. They are ruthless in their efforts to keep children in their thrall, subjecting them to unspeakable abuse, threats and intimidation. If intervention comes when children are already entangled in these dangerous enterprises, it is difficult to reach them.”

Ms Longfield added: “In the context of a global pandemic, it is easy to understand how these issues could drop down the agenda, but it is vital they are prioritised at all levels.

“To keep children safe, the response to youth violence must be a national priority across policing, public health and children’s services. We need equally strong national leadership in each of these three fields, backed up by local partnership working. This is the only way to fully implement a genuine public health approach across the country.

“Tragically, until there is this joined-up public health response to gangs that identifies and helps all those children at risk as early as possible, teenagers will keep dying on our streets.”

 

The report used data requested from local authorities via their directors of Public Health. Issued ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, the survey combined qualitative and quantitative questions. It reveals:

  • Few local authorities are using public health infrastructure effectively to address the issue of gang-involvement and youth violence and prevent future harm;
  • The number of local authorities quantifying the levels of youth violence in their local health strategies is low – 91 per cent were tracking some of the risk factors associated with gang-involvement and serious violence, but only one in four (35) local authorities were tracking some risks more closely associated with exploitation, such as school exclusion, being outside mainstream education, going missing, experiencing substance misuse, or living with a family member convicted of an offence;
  • The vast majority of local authorities (115) reported funding drug awareness intervention materials for schools, with 90 per cent of these including awareness training for different types of substances. However, only 50 per cent of local authorities (64) reported having a public health drug policy for children and young people; and
  • A small minority of local authorities (one in four) are using their public health mechanisms well to deal with youth violence. These areas are quantifying levels of youth violence and are more likely to be involved in other aspects of youth violence prevention. Those reporting quantifying levels of youth violence are more likely to record a wider range of risk factors for involvement, directly fund youth violence specific programmes and have a drugs policy for children and young people. However, most local authorities are missing opportunities to identify some of the most at-risk children and ensure appropriate services are in place to prevent harm.

The report concludes that a lack of focus on these issues in local authorities is driven by the absence of cross-government national leadership and oversight on the implementation of a public health approach to youth violence. So far, there is little evidence of a public health approach to youth violence being a national priority in government departments’ work programmes. The term ‘youth violence’ is not mentioned once in Public Health England’s 2020-25 strategy, says Ms Longfield.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Strong national leadership to drive the issue as a priority for local authorities, including support to use data better to understand who is at risk in their areas;
  • A cross-government framework to better coordinate the safeguarding work of local partners, such as police forces (including VRUs), public health, the NHS and children’s services;
  • A national drugs strategy for children is urgently needed to address falling numbers entering treatment and ensure clear pathways of support and diversion for children;
  • Specific public health funding should be provided to local authorities to deal with criminal exploitation and serious violence;
  • Reform of the alternative provision sector in education must focus on making exclusion a last resort, improve the quality of alternative provision, ensure routes back into mainstream schooling are strengthened and increase accountability on providers for the destinations of children excluded from mainstream settings;
  • Schools should be utilised in the efforts to prevent serious youth violence. Additional support should be formulated around schools, where many children already have links. Funding is needed for schools to stay open at evenings and weekends and throughout school holidays. Investment is also needed in high quality support from youth workers able to work with children at risk in their communities.
  • A significant expansion of early help services and increased investment in mental health, with a NHS trained counsellor in every school, levelling up on spending on speech and language therapy around the country, and an expansion of Troubled Families style intensive support to prevent children from reaching crisis point;
  • Local authorities should use Joint Strategic Needs Assessments to quantify levels of youth violence and risk factors criminal exploitation so that all agencies are aware of the scale of the problem, can identify the children who require support, and design services accordingly; and
  • Health and Wellbeing Boards should be leading discussions at a local level about youth violence and gang involvement, coordinating this with the response from safeguarding bodies.

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