Gangs – A Safeguarding Response

person holding black and silver semi automatic pistol
Following on from our article  ‘Gang Involvement – spotting the signs’ , we take a look at some of the methods available to safeguarding professionals that may help divert young people away from gang involvement. We also take a brief look at various other issues linked to gangs, the gangs matrix , Osman warnings and how the law deals with gang related matters.

What should I do I suspect gang involvement?

A child can fall very quickly into gang involvement and the response should be both rapid and dynamic. Agencies should share a collective responsibility to deal with gang culture, violence and criminality, whilst ensuring that the primary consideration will always be the protection and safety of children.  Professionals will struggle to deal with gang related issues in isolation and there should be a multi-agency response to the recruitment and exploitation of a young person by a gang. Emphasis should be on prevention, creating positive changes and diversions in a young person’s life.

Professionals should be wary of viewing young gang members as having made a ‘lifestyle choice’. Many children do not make informed choices when opting to join a gang, with the majority being coerced, threatened or manipulated. It is important that professionals understand the complexity of the ‘push – pull’ factors affecting the young person and how they have or will potentially exploited. Professionals should also be mindful that whilst a young gang member may be the perpetrator of gang violence and criminality, they may also be a victim of gang violence and exploitation.

Early Assessment

Early identification and interventions are key to safeguarding children and young people from risk of gang involvement. Where professionals receive information, that a young person is either a member of a gang, is at risk of becoming involved in a gang or is at risk of harm from gang members, then they will need to make a referral to children’s social care, in line with the local agreed safeguarding protocol/pathway. Where that information reveals that young person is also a victim of crime or has committed a crime, then the crime and circumstances should also be reported to police.

Following receipt of the referral , the circumstances should be assessed by a qualified and experienced social worker.  The lead social worker should clarify with the referrer as to why the referral was made,  exactly what the concerns are and why the referrer to believes the child may be at risk of harm, as a result of involvement or potential participation in gang activity. The referrer should be asked to put their concerns in writing (within 48 hours) to ensure there is an accurate and clear audit trail. An initial assessment should be completed within 7 working days from referral.

Information and Intelligence gathering

Attempts should be made to try and verify the information. Gathering and developing an accurate intelligence profile on the child and circumstances, will allow you to create a proportionate, timely and relevant risk assessment and taker the necessary action. Building intelligence is like building a jigsaw; information often thought to be small and unimportant is often the piece that makes your picture complete. What information do all parties have on the child? Is the picture complete or is more information needed? Information should be shared and sought with/from other professionals particularly police who should have oversight of any gang issues within the local area.

Below are just a few ways of sourcing your information:

  • obtain the full history of the child. Agencies all have different systems but there are protocols in place for information sharing. What can you tell each other?
  • talk to parents or carers. Highlight your concerns and establish whether they have their own concerns or information that is relevant. You are looking for any of those gang membership vulnerabilities and signsg. noticeable changes in appearance, appears to be wearing ‘colours’, uses slang words, has a new nickname, interests in gang culture.
  • where appropriate talk to the young person, explain your concerns and point out the risks. Disclosure from a child will be rare but coming across as non-judgemental might just get some half-truths from them.
  • talk to the school. Is there a change in concentration/behaviour? Does /he she still hang around with the same friends or has this changed. Is there an emerging gang culture within the school? Have teachers picked up on any playground or classmate gossip?
  • have you identified the child’s friends and known associates? Are they known gang members?

Immediate Harm

Where there are concerns that the child is at immediate risk of serious harm or there is a likelihood of serious harm, the police should be notified without delay.  The welfare and safety of the child should be the foremost concern, and steps should be taken in line with safeguarding protocols to ensure the immediate safety of the child using statutory child protection powers and procedures. This includes the use of emergency powers (Emergency Protection Order (EPO) or Police Protection) to ensure the child remains or is removed to a place of safety.

Osman Warnings

Where there is, information received concerning a threat to the life of the young person then an ‘Osman Warning’ needs to be given to that young person. This is likely to occur where there is information that there has been an incident between rival gang members, the incident involved the young person and the rival gang is likely to seek retribution. An Osman Warning is derived from the case of Osman v United Kingdom (1998), a case where the applicants, Mrs Mulkiye Osman and her son Ahmet Osman complained that the authorities had failed to take adequate and appropriate steps to protect both the lives of Ahmet Osman and Mr. Ali Osman (husband to Mulkiye and father to Ahmet). Mr. Osman was fatally shot and Ahmet was injured in a shooting perpetrated by Paul Paget-Lewis, a former teacher of Ahmet. The Osman’s argued that the authorities failed to appreciate and act on clear warning signs and information that Paget-Lewis represented a serious threat of physical safety to safety of Ahmet Osman and his family. The results of this case placed a positive obligation on authorities to take preventative measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another individual.

There have been occasions where police have issued Osman Warnings to young people without any further safeguarding interventions being instigated. This should never occur and the police should always ensure that any Osman Warning results in an automatic referral to local authority children’s social care services. This should trigger the strategy discussion, or the need to take immediate safeguarding action.

Initial Stages

A strategy/multi-agency professionals meeting with all relevant parties should take place as soon as possible. This should include a representative from the local police gang’s unit, the missing person’s unit if the child is regularly going missing, the carer (if accommodated), any NGO representative, any Key Worker and a representative from the child’s school. The strategy meeting should look at the risks and immediate interventions that can be put in place. What level of risk are you dealing with? What are the immediate safeguarding concerns?  Many police forces use a Gangs Matrix system (see below). However, for the purposes of the initial strategy meeting risk categorisation should be kept simple:

Low risk – A child or young person who is at low risk of becoming involved in gang related activity.

Medium risk – Information that a child or young person may be on the periphery of gang related activity, likely to be involved in, or is at risk of being drawn into gang related activity.

High risk – Credible and corroborated information that a child or young person is involved with a gang i.e. member/affiliated. There will be a number of gang membership signs present.

If the child is a Looked After Child (LAC) then the care plan should be reviewed. An initial risk assessment should be completed and this should be agreed between Social Care and Police. The Social Worker should liaise with other agencies – Education, Health Professionals and Care Providers to make them aware of the potential presence of gang related issues. If a child is currently under a referral to the Youth Offending Team (YOT) then the YOT worker should be identified and told. Any Non-Government Organisations(NGO) already working with the child or family should also be made aware. Actions from the strategy meeting should be clear, specific and relevant, with all attendees being clear on what they are required to do. There should also be a discussion around approaching and engaging the young person’s parent(s)/guardian/carer. They may be a valuable source of information as they may have witnessed signs and behaviours that their child is being influenced or coerced by gang members.

As with any safeguarding issue, care should be taken when engaging parents who may be unware that their child is involved in potentially risky behaviours. Some parents may react negatively, deny that their child is involved with gangs and ‘shut up shop’, making future engagement difficult. Phraseology will be important with the term ‘gang member’ and other terminology being potentially devastating to a parent. It should be clearly communicated that enquiries are being made because there are concerns around the safety and welfare of their child and their involvement will be valuable in preventing their child being or becoming involved in gangs.

Engagement with the Child

Efforts should be made to engage with the child. It may be a ‘big ask’ for a child to talk about their gang activities for several reasons – fear around their own safety, fears and concerns for their family’s safety, fear of revealing crimes that they may have committed during their gang association. If the child is willing to talk about gang involvement, professionals should always take seriously what the child says. There has been much feedback from young people that professionals do not appear to listen to them, that we appear to not understand the significance of the information being disclosed – a disconnect between young people and professionals. It is clearly difficult for some of us to interact with young people, particularly those that are suspicious and have an extreme dislike of the authorities. Professionals should be mindful that a child involved with a gang can be both a victim and a perpetrator, with varying needs.

Breaking away from a gang is a massive challenge for a child. The push factors will still be there, as will the pull factors, with the added complication of the absolute certainty that there will be some retribution from the gang if they were to break ties, which could ultimately lead to severe injury or death. This initial engagement may be the only opportunity to demonstrate that there are people that care and give them the hope that they can escape and live a positive lifestyle.  If it doesn’t go well then there may not be a second opportunity. Therefore, professionals should consider the early introduction of a NGO mentoring service, even at that first engagement.

Interventions

Whilst the law and numerous safeguarding policies give professionals various options around interventions, diverting a young person away from gang activity will almost certainly require specialist help from NGO’s. Whether professionals can access these services will of course depend on the availability of the support services in your area and whether there is funding in place. The scale of options available to you will be based on how much of a gang problem you have in your area, plus the partnerships and programmes the Safeguarding Board has put in place through their strategic gang strategy.

There has been very little research into what interventions work and are the most impactive, when trying to divert young people away from gangs and serious youth violence. Options vary across the UK with results differing between the diverse projects. Whilst there is no doubt that the structure and content of a programme is important, it’s success is usually due to the dedicated hard work of those involved. Whenever we see positive outcomes for young people, it has usually been because an individual has invested a great deal of time and effort in building trust and rapport with the young person. Having someone who the child relates to and who they see as understanding them is key.

What about moving the young person away?

For looked after children we would generally only advise distant placements if there is a real danger to the child if they were to remain in their home area. Examples would be where the child is a gang member or gang affiliated, is involved in county line drug trafficking or is extremely vulnerable to CSE (Level 2 or 3). Even in these circumstances we are mindful that this not always the right thing to do. The report – ‘Running the Risks’ by the charity Catch 22, puts forward interesting and compelling evidence that moving a child to a distant placement to break the ties, is not always the best thing to do, often increasing missing episodes. Care should be taken when researching and exploring a suitable placement. Placing a gang involved young person into an area affected by gang-related crime could have a detrimental effect and draw them back into the very activities the placement was supposed to divert them from. We still see many examples where a gang involved young person is placed in either a children’s home or semi-independent accommodation, only to find that one of the current residents is a gang member from a rival gang. Housing two rival gang members together is potentially disastrous for the young people , the care provider and any other residents. If are involved in moving a young person to a distant placement , then move them to an area where there are no gangs.

 

The use of a Gangs Matrix system

Some police areas use a matrix system to manage gang members and gang affiliated individuals (nominal’s). Some see this as a highly controversial tactic by the police, which racially discriminates against young people from some ethnic minority backgrounds. The use of the gang’s matrix in London has been defended by the Metropolitan Police who point to the fact that those that are identified as being at risk, are offered support to help divert them away from gang activity. Regardless of which side of this argument you sit on, the purpose of the matrix should be to assess the danger a person may pose to the public, society and themselves (in the case of a child or vulnerable adult). Using specific risk criteria, an individual is scored and then graded as to the level of risk and harm. Within the Metropolitan Police if a person is deemed high-risk then they are generally managed through a monthly Partnership Gang Nominal Meeting, where a person risk management plan is discussed. This allows partners to identify those most at risk and prioritise resources and direct bespoke methods of intervention. This includes safeguarding strategies and isn’t just about enforcement. Any like meeting in your area that deals with specific cases will benefit from a multi-agency approach e.g. Education, Youth Offending Team, Health, Mental Health, Probation Service, Housing and relevant NGO’s.

Gangs and the Law

 There are a number of pieces of legislation and judicial restrictions that deal with gang related violence and gang related drug dealing. The criminal law deals with most aspects of unlawful gang related activity, including specialist legislation that deals with violent offenders and proceeds from crime. However, there are several civil measures available that can be used to disrupt gang activity, divert young people away from gang activity and prevent coercion by others. Below we look at gang injunctions:

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2 Comments

  1. Kendra Houseman 14/07/2018 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    Love this. Will be using all of this in my day to day work

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