5.37 Child Criminal Exploitation

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1. Introduction

There are a number of areas in which young people are put at risk by gang activity, both through participation in, and as victims of, gang violence which can be in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household.

A child who is affected by gang activity or serious youth violence may have suffered, or may be likely to suffer, significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect.

Significant harm is defined in Recognition of Significant Harm as a situation where a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, a degree of physical, sexual and / or emotional harm (through abuse or neglect), which is so harmful that there needs to be compulsory intervention by child protection services

2. Definitions

Definition of criminal exploitation:

Child Criminal Exploitation occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or (c) through violence or the threat of violence. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. Serious Violence Strategy 2018, Home Office.

Defining a gang

Defining a gang is difficult. They tend to fall into three categories: Peer Groups, Street Gangs and Organised Crime Groups. It can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Although some peer group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a street gang.

A street gang can be described as a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of children who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group's identity. A street gang will engage in criminal activity and violence and may lay claim over territory (not necessarily geographical but it can include an illegal economy territory). They have some form of identifying structure featuring a hierarchy usually based on age, physical strength, and propensity to violence or older sibling rank. There may be certain rites involving antisocial or criminal behaviour or sex acts in order to become part of the gang. They are in conflict with other similar gangs.

While there is a distinction between organised crime groups and street gangs based on the level of criminality, organisation, planning and control, there may be significant links between different levels of gangs. For example street gangs can be involved in drug dealing on behalf of organised criminal groups. Young men and women may be at risk of sexual exploitation in these groups.

Children may be involved in more than one 'gang', with some cross-border movement, and may not stay in a 'gang' for significant periods of time. Children rarely use the term 'gang', instead they used terms such as 'family', 'breddrin', 'crews', 'cuz' (cousins), 'my boys' or simply 'the people I grew up with'.

An Organised criminal group is a group of individuals normally led by adults for whom involvement in crime is for personal gain (financial or otherwise). This involves serious and organised criminality by a core of violent gang members who exploit vulnerable young people and adults. This may also involve the movement and selling of drugs and money across the country, known as county lines.

County Lines

This so called because it extends across county boundaries and is coordinated by the use of dedicated mobile phone lines. It is a tactic used by groups or gangs to facilitate the selling of drugs in an area outside of the area in which they live, which reduces their risk of detection. Selling drugs across county lines often involves the criminal exploitation of children and young people. Child criminal exploitation, like other forms of abuse and exploitation, is a safeguarding concern and constitutes abuse even if the young person appears to have readily become involved. Child criminal exploitation is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation and usually involves some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). The exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). Young people who are criminally exploited are at a high risk of experiencing violence and intimidation and threats to family members may also be made. Gangs may also target vulnerable adults and take over their premises to distribute Class A drugs in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.

Children and young people can become indebted to gangs/groups and exploited in order to pay off debts. Those who are criminally exploited often go missing travelling to other towns often by rail but sometimes car or coach (some of which can be great distances from their home addresses). They may have unexplained increases in money or possessions, be in receipt of additional mobile phone and receive excessive texts or phone calls.

White British children are often targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection and some children may be as young as 12 although 15 to 16 years old is the most common age range. The young people involved may not recognise themselves as victims of any abuse, and can be used to recruit other young people.

It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. If a young person is arrested for drugs offences a long way from home in an area where they have no local connections and no obvious means of getting home, this should trigger questions about their welfare and they should potentially be considered as victims of child criminal exploitation and trafficking rather than as an offender. Agencies also need to be proactive and make contact with statutory services in the young person’s home area to share information.

Where there are concerns that children are victims of child criminal exploitation they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism.


Safeguarding should focus on young people who are vulnerable of making the transition to gang involvement as well as those already involved in gangs. Practitioners should be aware of particular risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons; drugs and sexual exploitation.

Fear and a need for self-protection is a key motivation for children to carry a weapon - it affords a child a feeling of power. Neighbourhoods with high levels of deprivation and social exclusion generally have the highest rates of gun and knife crime. Children are more likely to carry knives and other weapons than guns.

Professionals working with children who may have reason to be fearful in their neighbourhood or school/college should be alert to the possibility that a child may carry a weapon.

3. Risks

The risk or potential risk of harm to the child may be as a victim, a gang member or both - in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household. Teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to recruitment into gangs and involvement in gang violence. This vulnerability may be exacerbated by risk factors in an individual's background, including violence in the family, involvement of siblings in gangs, poor educational attainment, or poverty or mental health problems.

A child who is affected by gang activity, criminal exploitation or serious youth violence can be at risk of significant harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Girls may be particularly at risk of sexual exploitation. See 5.5 Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation

Violence is a way for gang members to gain recognition and respect by asserting their power and authority in the street, with a large proportion of street crime perpetrated against members of other gangs or the relatives of gang members.

The specific risks for males and females may be quite different. There is a higher risk of sexual abuse for females and they are more likely to have been coerced into involvement with a gang through peer pressure than their male counterparts.

There is evidence of a high incidence of rape of girls who are involved with gangs. Some senior gang members pass their girlfriends around to lower ranking members and sometimes to the whole group at the same time. Very few rapes by gang members are reported.

Gang members may groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, which act as disinhibitors and also create dependency, and encourage/coerce them to recruit other girls through school and social networks.

4. Indicators of risk

  • Child withdrawn from family;
  • Sudden loss of interest in school or change in behaviour. Decline in attendance or academic achievement (although it should be noted that some gang members will maintain a good attendance record to avoid coming to notice);
  • Being emotionally 'switched off', but also containing frustration / rage;
  • Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
  • Holding unexplained money or possessions;
  • Staying out unusually late without reason, or breaking parental rules consistently;
  • Sudden change in appearance – dressing in a particular style or 'uniform' similar to that of other young people they hang around with, including a particular colour;
  • New tattoos with gang style symbols
  • Dropping out of positive activities;
  • New nickname;
  • Unexplained physical injuries, and/or refusal to seek / receive medical treatment for 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;
  • Breaking off with old friends and hanging around with one group of people;
  • Associating with known or suspected gang members, closeness to siblings or adults in the family who are gang members;
  • Starting to adopt certain codes of group behaviour e.g. ways of talking and hand signs;
  • Going missing;
  • Being found by Police in towns or cities many miles from their home;
  • 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; and
  • Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.

There are links between gang-involvement, criminal exploitation and young people going missing from home or care. An important feature of gang involvement is that, the more heavily a child is involved with a gang, the less likely they are to talk about it.

In suspected cases of radicalisation or extremism, social workers and local authorities have a duty to refer the case to the local Channel panel, which will then decide the correct, if any, intervention and support to be offered to that individual. See also: 5.32 Supporting Children and Young People Vulnerable to Violent Extremism

5. Professional response


A referral must be made as soon as possible when any concern of Significant Harm as a consequence of gang activity including child criminal exploitation becomes known. Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm should contact the Surrey Children's Single Point of Access (C-SPA) or the police for the area in which the child is currently located. If there is concern about a child’s immediate safety, the Police should be contacted on 999.

When considering making a referral, you will also need to balance the need for confidentiality with your responsibility to share information to protect the child. Where possible, you should always ascertain the views of the child, and keep them, and their parents/carers informed about your actions.

An Early Help Assessment may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to risk of involvement in gang activity.

Support and interventions should be proportionate and based on the child's needs identified during the assessment.

If a case is open and allocated then the referrer must contact the allocated Social Worker, manager or Service Manager either in writing, or by telephone followed by confirmation in writing within 2 days.

If the case is closed, then a new referral will need to be made via the Surrey Children's Point of Access (C-SPA)

Surrey Children's Single Point of Access

Phone: 0300 470 9100

Email: cspa@surreycc.gov.uk – emails are dealt with during normal office hours

Out of hours phone: 01483 517898 to speak to our Emergency Duty Team.

Alternatively advice may be sought from the Police Public Protection Investigation Unit or the designated professionals within the agency.

The police, especially safer neighbourhood policing teams, should be aware of siblings or other children living in households which are affected by gang activity and/or serious youth violence, including parents as adult gang members, and should share this information internally with child abuse investigation teams and externally with LA children's social care at the earliest opportunity.

Where there are concerns about a child or young person being criminally exploited (for example, if a young person is arrested for drugs offences away from home in an area where they have no local connections and with no obvious means of getting home) from the first point of contact the Police and Children’s Social Care should consider whether they are victims of child criminal exploitation or trafficking and pursue a safeguarding, rather than criminal justice, response.

Surrey Children's Services in consultation with Surrey Police and any other agencies involved with the child, must consider whether to convene a strategy discussion, and whether there should be a criminal investigation and/or a Surrey Children's Services led intervention under Section 47.


Once the CSPA or the child’s lead professional confirms the identified risk(s), a Child & Family Assessment may be triggered. As part of this a Child Exploitation & Missing Risk Assessment Tool will be completed by a suitably qualified practitioner in Children’s Services or Family Services and may be submitted to the weekly Risk Management Meeting (RMM).

Risk Management Meetings

 Multi-agency Risk Management Meetings (RMM) take place weekly in each of the Children’s Social Care areas. Jointly chaired by Children’s Services and Family Services, the RMM provide a multi-agency forum with responsibility for assessing and reducing the risk of exploitation for children. These meetings will also include representatives from Surrey Police, Education and Health and any other agencies appropriate to the children being discussed.

 Each week, the RMM will consider new referrals with a view to agreeing a Safety Plan for the child.

 The RMM will allocate a lead agency with responsibilities for the implementation of an agreed Safety Plan. The RMM will review and assess the effectiveness of each Safety Plan and adapt interventions in accordance with changing risk/circumstances.

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

Children are often be in fear of ending their contact with the gang because it might leave them vulnerable to reprisals from those former gang members and rival gang members who may see the young person as without protection.

If there is a possible "threat to life", the Police may consider it appropriate to issue Osman Warning (Police issue an "Osman warning" letter when there is intelligence of a threat to someone's life, but not enough evidence to justify the police arresting the possible offender). In these circumstances this should trigger an automatic referral by the Police 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.

Schools affected by gang issues and potential or actual serious youth violence will need to work in partnership with the police, Family Services and children's social care.

Community groups / third sector agencies can be well placed to know the profile and location of local gang activity and potential or actual serious youth violence through their community links.

Gang Injunctions

"Gang injunctions offer local partners a way to intervene and to engage a young person aged 14-17 with positive activities, with the aim of preventing further involvement in gangs, violence and/or gang-related drug dealing activity". (Home Office, June 2015)

The Serious Crime Act 2015) has amended the Crime and Security Act 2010 to extend this provision from 18 years and to include children and young people (14 -17 year olds). Gang injunctions also now covers drug dealing activity" as well as "violence" including the threat of violence. Applications should focus on gang related behaviour that may lead to violence, and not other problematic antisocial behaviour.

In order to make a gang injunction, the court must be satisfied that the respondent has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence or drug dealing activity.

6. Violent extremism and radicalisation

Children and young people involved with gangs may be drawn into radicalisation or be exposed to the messages of extremist groups either through direct contact with members or, increasingly, through the internet. This can put a young person at risk of being drawn into criminal activity and has the potential to cause Significant Harm.

The risk of radicalisation is the product of a number of factors and identifying this risk requires that staff exercise their professional judgement, seeking further advice as necessary. It may be combined with other vulnerabilities or may be the only risk identified. Any member of staff who identifies such concerns, for example as a result of observed behaviour or reports of conversations to suggest the child supports terrorism and/or violent extremism, must report these concerns to the named or designated safeguarding professional in their organisation or agency, who will consider what further action is required.

What to do if you have a Prevent concern

7. Further information


Children’s Voices - A review of evidence on the subjective wellbeing of children involved in gangs in England (Children’s Commissioner, November 2017)

8. Resources

  • Abianda - a social enterprise that works with young women affected by gangs - http://abianda.com
This page is correct as printed on Friday 24th of May 2024 01:53:57 PM please refer back to this website (http://surreyscb.procedures.org.uk) for updates.