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Child exploitationGangs

Running the risks: the links between gang involvement and young people going missing

A teenage boy and a teenage girl stand in a graffiti-covered underpass. He shows her something on his phone.

The Dawes Unit was a specialist unit within Catch22 that addressed the harms caused by gangs and youth violence, bringing together research, policy and practice. The service produced a range of research, which addresses the problems caused by gangs and explores how best to prevent gang involvement and support those looking to exit. This publication is part of that output.

The growing public concern around child sexual exploitation (CSE) has led to a focus on the link between CSE and going missing and this is now beginning to have an impact on policy and practice. The link between gang involvement and young people going missing from home and/or at risk of CSE has not had the same policy attention. This report shows that too often children and young people are still being criminalised rather than safeguarded, and the needs and risks surrounding gang-involvement not recognised.

Our findings highlight the coercion and exploitation affecting children and young people who become involved with gangs. We found evidence of young people both overtly coerced and more subtly exploited into travelling to unknown areas to sell drugs for weeks at a time in what has been described as ‘county lines’.

For girls involved with gangs, the risk of going missing was linked to child sexual exploitation (CSE) as well as the illegal drugs market. There is currently no national data available to gauge the prevalence of this issue, it is an unseen problem, hidden from services and with damaging consequences for children and young people.

Our research highlights the need for all professionals working with this group, regardless of their sector to be trained to understand the safeguarding needs of those affected by gangs. In order for this to happen, multi-agency working that bridges the gap between safeguarding and criminal justice is essential.

Promising approaches are clear in areas such as Greater Manchester and Greenwich where services are working in partnership to ensure that safeguarding is prioritised alongside a criminal justice response. However, with no specific Government guidance on the link between gang involvement and going missing this is happening in isolated pockets rather than on a national scale.

Only through multi-agency working across Local Authority boundaries, and across all sectors will we be able to understand the scale of the problem and address it effectively.