Hidden and unreported: new report links gang involvement and going missing

A new report by Catch22 Dawes Unit in partnership with Missing People provides evidence of gang-involved young people going missing as they are caught up in ‘drug lines’.

23 July 2015

Runaway and missing children are being used by gangs to expand inner city drugs empires into county towns, according to a ground-breaking report out today.

The new report ‘Running the Risks: The links between gang-involvement and young people going missing‘, by Catch22 Dawes Unit in partnership with Missing People, reveals how gangs are setting children up in flats for weeks at a time to sell drugs in provincial areas. It calls for gang-involved young people who go missing from home or care to be treated as victims rather than criminals.

Drawing on extensive research and in-depth interviews with young people and practitioners, the report finds that these young people who go missing are more vulnerable to gang involvement and sexual exploitation, for reasons including debt and involvement in ‘drug lines’.

Key findings include:

  • Coercion vs. Choice – There is clear evidence to show that exploitation/coercion is a common factor in gang-involved young people and children running away. This includes overt coercion, as well more subtle exploitation through the ‘pull’ factors of money, affection and status.
  • The market in illegal drugs is a key activity for gang-involved children and young people. Children and young people are being recruited to travel to areas away from home to sell drugs. In the worst cases, this can be a form of child trafficking as young people find themselves in unsafe environments, completely isolated and with no means of contacting anyone for support.
  • Drug lines in provincial towns linked to gang networks from UK’s big cities. Gang networks in London stretch far into provincial towns, particularly those on the South and East coasts. Children and young people are pulled into this activity through promises of rich rewards, threats to their (or their families’) safety or even after relocation by social services. They can go missing because they are forced to pay off debts to gang members, either through being forced into selling drugs or through running away to escape the problem.
  • Child sexual exploitation (CSE) – Missing episodes linked to relationships and sexual exploitation tended to be specific to girls. Missing episodes linked to the drugs market, debt and fear can be experienced by both genders.
  • Children’s social care services have an important role to play. Out of area placements must be managed to ensure children and young people are adequately safeguarded.

The report also provides practitioners and policy makers with recommendations on how to work more effectively to support this group. Areas such as Greenwich and Greater Manchester are leading the way in bringing together gang intervention and missing services.

However, there is no national guidance so this is happening on an ad hoc basis nationally. It is essential that criminal justice, gangs and children’s social care services do not work in silos but work in partnership to provide the most effective response.

Recommendations include:

  • Relocation and the care system: Government should work with Local Authorities and all sectors to promote innovation in the care system for this group and investigate the use of specialist foster placements for gang-involved children and young people.
  • Safeguarding: Government, LSCBs and LCJBs should work together to ensure that national and local guidance bridges the gap between community safety and safeguarding to drive better multi-agency working.
  • Early identification and intervention after missing incidents: Those working with missing children and young people should be trained to understand the risks and needs of gang-involved young people, and that information from return interviews is shared quickly and effectively to inform interventions.
  • Building relationships to drive change: Local Authorities should ensure that all interventions for gang-involved young people prioritise strong relationships, ensuring consistency, persistence and time to build trust.
  • Understanding and using data: Police and Crime Commissioners should drive forward a joined-up approach to collecting and sharing data in partnership with LSCBs and LCJBs, and ensuring that joint actions are agreed to improve policy and practice.

Ann Coffey MP, Chair of the APPG on Missing Children, and author of the independent report, ‘Real Voices – Child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester’, said:

‘Young people being groomed to sell drugs and being isolated from help is another example of how some of our most vulnerable children and young people fall into terrible danger when they go missing from home or care. These children must be seen as victims, not criminals. They are children being exploited by gangs to do their dirty work. It is minimal cost for maximum gain for the gangs. We must not fall into the same trap as we did in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford where the victims of sexual exploitation were wrongly seen as making a ‘lifestyle choice’.

‘The most important thing professionals can do is learn how to listen to young people, not to judge them and to understand the harsh world that they live in. Too often the professional response is to export the problem elsewhere by moving these children to other areas where they are left without support and the same thing happens all over again.’

Frances Flaxington, Catch22’s Strategic Director, said:
‘Similarly to those experiencing child sexual exploitation, the young people identified in this report are likely to be widely under-reported when missing and when they are reported, they often receive a criminal, rather than a safeguarding response. Risk-taking behaviour that is an inherent part of adolescent development is interpreted as a ‘choice’ with young people ‘putting themselves in harm’s way’. The reality is that these are exceptionally vulnerable children and young people. They need specialist support services including strong and long-lasting relationships that help them open up and improve their lives. At Catch22, we design our services to meet the different needs of the young people who use them.

‘Catch22 is already demonstrating the impact of this approach, with a number of services including testing specialist foster placements for young people at risk and multi-agency partnerships with police and local authorities. Local and central government must work with all sectors to encourage greater innovation and effective work across partnerships to support this group of children and young people.’

Jo Youle, Chief Executive, Missing People, said:

‘When a young person returns from being missing it is not the end of the story. It’s an opportunity for learning and understanding. It is a time for care and support. Every missing incident gives us an opportunity to reach out to a young person, to find out what’s going on, and to offer them the help and support they desperately need. Missing People is there for missing children and adults 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, by phone, text and email.

‘Reports such as this enable us to better understand the reasons why people go missing and mean that we can provide a better service in the future. I hope that all of us will heed the recommendations in this important report. We must avoid judgements being made between children who some believe are ‘genuinely’ exploited and those who people think make a ‘choice’. I call on us all to commit to working together, and working better, to safeguard vulnerable children and young people.’

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