Fears over number of children recruited into gangs – with over 50 criminal groups operating in South Yorkshire

Fears have been expressed over the number of children in gangs across the country, with 27,000 youngsters believed to be involved.

By Claire Lewis
Friday, 01 March, 2019, 07:00

Last year, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Alan Billings, revealed that there were 55 organised crime gangs operating in the county and that youngsters were being 'groomed' to become members.

Dr Alan Billings

He likened the process to the way children in Rotherham were groomed by men of predominantly Pakistani heritage before they were sexually abused over a 16-year period between 1994 and 2013.

The National Crime Agency launched an investigation in 2014 after the author of an independent report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham suggested around 1,400 victims had been identified but the figure has now risen to over 1,500.

Lasy year, South Yorkshire Police said the force knew of 128 organised crime gangs in South Yorkshire but less than half of those were thought to be active.READ MORE: Police probe into shooting at Sheffield house continues

A new major report published this week has echoed Dr Billings’ claims and has concluded that failings exposed by sex grooming scandals are being repeated as thousands of children are preyed upon by ‘ruthless’ criminal gangs.

It estimates there are around 27,000 child gang members in England, but only a fraction are on the radar of authorities.

Criminal groups are believed to be recruiting younger children and girls because their ‘profile’ means they are less likely to be known to police and other agencies.

The findings have prompted calls for the Government to designate child criminal exploitation as a ‘national priority’.

Publishing the study, Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield said: "The criminal gangs operating in England are complex and ruthless organisations, using sophisticated techniques to groom children, and chilling levels of violence to keep them compliant.

"At the moment it is too easy for them to succeed.

"Thousands of children in towns and cities across England are at risk and the same attention must be paid to protecting them as to other major threats to children.

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"However, I am worried that all the mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to child sexual exploitation in towns and cities up and down the country are now being repeated.

"Many local areas are not facing up to the scale of the problem, they are not taking notice of the risk factors in front of them, and they are not listening to parents and communities who ask for help."

Analysis of crime survey data by the Office of the Children's Commissioner suggests there are 27,000 children aged between 10 and 17 who identify as a member of a street gang.

Researchers said that for some children gang membership represents little more than a loose social connection and not all young members are involved in crime or serious violence.

Simon Blackburn, chairman of the Local Government Association's safer and stronger communities board, said: "The exploitation of children and vulnerable young people by gangs is a significant and growing concern for councils, who take this issue extremely seriously.

"To help stop young people being criminally exploited or groomed, it is vital that Government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils' public health budgets, which needs to be addressed in the Spending Review."

Jon Brown, of the NSPCC, said: "Until recently, sexually exploited children were seen as part of the problem and complicit in joining gangs. We cannot afford to make that mistake this time around.

"When authorities come into contact with young people in criminal cases, they must understand how coercion and grooming has lured and trapped these children into committing crime."

Barnardo's chief executive Javed Khan said: "It's worrying that many children involved in gangs are not known to services.

"Seriously stretched police and social workers are struggling to support growing numbers of children with complex needs, and help is rarely offered before they reach crisis point."

A Government spokeswoman said: "We are committed to protecting vulnerable children by cracking down on the ruthless gangs that seek to exploit them and by offering them the support and skills they need to lead lives free of violence.

"That is why we launched the Serious Violence Strategy, which puts a greater focus on early intervention alongside a tough law enforcement response.

"We have proposed a new statutory duty on partners across education, social services and health to work together to tackle violence as part of a public health approach, and are providing £220 million to support children and young people at risk of becoming involved in violence and gangs."