Criminal gangs target children to sell drugs and stash weapons in South Yorkshire

Criminal gangs are recruiting children to stash weapons and sell drugs
Criminal gangs are recruiting children to stash weapons and sell drugs

Concerns have been raised for children being groomed by criminal gangs in South Yorkshire - with youngsters recruited to deal drugs and stash weapons.

The issue has been raised by South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, who is calling for action to reduce the number of children becoming embroiled in the deadly world of gangs.

Dr Alan Billings

Dr Alan Billings

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He is calling for the police, local authorities, schools and youth services to work together to tackle the issue and to raise awareness amongst parents of what risks their children face at the hands of gangs.

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Dr Billings said: "Gang membership comes at a price. The price is that you sell drugs and join in turf wars. You carry or hide weapons for older members.

"It goes without saying that by this time escape from the gang is risky and difficult.

"Solving this is not simply or even mainly a policing matter. Other statutory agencies, the voluntary and community sector, all of us, have to think hard about how we offer these young people what they currently get from gang life - and nowhere else."

Dr Billings said the issue was discussed at a top level conference he attended with Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, ministers and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick.

"The Met is experiencing younger and younger children being groomed by criminal gangs and it got me thinking about what has been happening in parts of South Yorkshire, especially Sheffield. I don't think we have anything like the problems they have in London but I can see how it could develop," he added.

"There's a process of grooming going on and all of us - police, schools, local authorities and partners - need to be aware of it.

"It's low level here at the moment and small numbers involved but it could develop so we need an awareness that it will be happening and all agencies who work with young people need to know about it and act together."

Dr Billings added: "We are talking about the way in which younger and younger people are being drawn into the gang culture, which is a drug culture very often. Looking forward it's something that might develop. We meed some action, all of us together."

He said gangs often prey on children struggling at school or not attending, who have a 'bleak' outlook on life.

"Out of a sense of hopelessness, gangs move in and offer them an alternative - a way of making money, a sense of status, friends - it's quite seductive," Dr Billings added.

He said he does not want a similar scenario to the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham, where those in authority failed to act.

"We have learned from child sexual exploitation- it was happening under our noses and we could not see or did not want to see it .

"We must not take the same attitude with this."

DR ALAN BILLINGS' VIEWPOINT:

"We may soon find ourselves talking about the criminal grooming of children with the same concern that we had over their sexual grooming.

"We are very familiar with the latter.

"Sexual grooming is about the way children, some as young as eleven, are lured into abusive sexual relationships by older people, generally males. This is what happened on the streets of Rochdale and Rotherham.

"We know how it works. The young person thinks they have found someone who pays them attention, flatters them, shows them a good time. Treats them as if they were grown-up.

"They find kindness and love. The relationship becomes sexual.

"Then the abuse begins as they are passed around and even trafficked to other places. If they protest, they are threatened. The trap is sprung.

"Today, those who in the past ignored the plight of these young people, seeing them as 'willing' or the authors of their own misfortune, do so no more. Over the next few years we are going to find more of these offenders brought to justice.

"But we must not become so focused on sexual grooming that we fail to see something else beginning which will be just as devastating - the grooming of children by gangs for criminal purposes.

"Gang members identify vulnerable children and befriend them. They pay them attention and flatter them. They give point and purpose to their daily living which otherwise might be bleak.

"These young people are not doing well in school. They may not be in school. The prospect of a job looks ever more remote.

"But gang membership comes at a price. The price is that you sell drugs and join in turf wars. You carry or hide weapons for older members. And we should not underestimate how scarily exciting some of this can feel.

"It goes without saying that by this time escape from the gang is risky and difficult.

"Solving this is not simply or even mainly a policing matter. Other statutory agencies, the voluntary and community sector, all of us, have to think hard about how we offer these young people what they currently get from gang life - and nowhere else.

"If we don't, in a few years time, someone will be coming along to write a report about the criminal exploitation of children in the same way that they once wrote about their sexual exploitation.

"We can't look the other way again."