Safeguarding Children Vulnerable to Gang Activity


This chapter summarises Safeguarding Children and Young People who may be affected by gang activity published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2010. See also Knife, Gun and Gang Related Violence information on the Home Office website.

This non-statutory guidance is intended for frontline practitioners across the children's workforce to help them understand the nature of the risk that gang activity poses to children both through participation in and as victims of gang violence, how signs of gang involvement may manifest themselves and how to deal with such issues.

This guidance is supplementary to Working Together to Safeguard Children.


Girls and Gangs, the Centre for Social Justice, 2014 (research paper)

Ending Gang and Youth Violence Community Engagement 2014

Statutory Guidance Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing, (GOV.UK)

Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing A Practitioners' Guide Revised Guidance (May 2016, GOV.UK)

Preventing Gang and Youth Violence: Spotting Signals of Risk and Supporting Children and Young People (Early Intervention Foundation)

Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines (The Home Office) - This guidance outlines what county lines (and associated criminal exploitation) is, signs to look for in potential victims, and what to do about it.

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines (GOV.UK)

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

County Lines Exploitation: guidance for practitioners (Ministry of Justice)

County Lines Drug Supply, Vulnerability and Harm 2018


In November 2021 information was added on Knife Crime Prevention Orders.

1. Introduction

Addressing the problem of gang involvement is a multi-agency issue; partnership working and information sharing is therefore a key to safeguarding children and young people at risk of gang-related harm.

Young people are put at risk by gang activity both through participation in and as victims of gang violence.

Overall, children particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in the gang context are those who are:

  1. Not involved in gangs, but living in an area where gangs are active, which can have a negative impact on their ability to be safe, health, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being;
  2. Not involved in gangs, but at risk of becoming victims of gangs;
  3. Not involved in gangs but at risk of becoming drawn in, for example, siblings or children of known gang members; or
  4. Gang-involved and at risk of harm through their gang-related activities (e.g. drug supply, weapon use, sexual exploitation and risk of attack from own or rival gang members).

Victims and offenders are often the same people. When adults treat a young person as just a victim or just an offender, they are not taking into account the complex, cyclical nature of the victim-offender link and the factors that influence young people's lives.

2. Definition of 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, and although some peer group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and low level 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 for example it could include an illegal economy territory). They have some form of identifying structure featuring a hierarchy usually based on age, physical strength, 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.

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' 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 use of vulnerable people or children to sell 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'.

Young people can become indebted to the gang/groups and then exploited in order to pay off debts. Young people who are criminally exploited often go missing and travel to other towns (some of which can be great distances from their home addresses). They may have unexplained increases in money or possessions, be in receipt of an 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. See Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure, Referring a Potential Victim of Modern Slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

There is a distinction between organised crime groups and street gangs based on the level of criminality, organisation, planning and control, However, there are significant links between different levels of gangs for example street gangs can be involved t 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'.

Safeguarding should focus on both 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.

The Pyramid of Gang Involvement on page 13 of the government guidance sets out a tiered approach to defining gangs.

The guidance focuses on safeguarding those children and young people at Level 2, i.e. those on the cusp of/vulnerable to making the transition to gang involvement as well as those already involved in gangs.

At the top level (Level 3) are organised criminal gangs, composed principally of adult men. At the bottom level (Level 1) are peer groups.

The evidence from intelligence and analysis suggests that gangs are predominantly male with an average age of 20 and extensive criminal histories with the average age of a first conviction of 15.

See also Knife, gun and gang crime policy (GOV.UK).

Local evidence-gathering and profiling of local gang problems will be needed to establish what the risks are in a particular area. 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, poverty or mental health problems.

Practitioners should consider the risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons, drugs, and sexual exploitation.

Young people who are involved in gangs are more like to suffer harm themselves, through retaliatory violence, displaced retaliation, territorial violence with other gangs or other harm suffered whilst committing a crime. Young people involved in gangs are more likely to possess and use weapons, both knives and guns. Evidence shows that those carrying weapons are more likely to become victims of weapon attacks and the risk of being seriously injured increases in group situations. There is some evidence to suggest younger children carrying or using guns and of girls and young women being used to carry guns on behalf of gang members.

Gangs use violence to assert their power and authority in a local area and may have to assert their power in relation to other gangs in the area. This is why so much gang-related crime and violence is perpetrated against other members of gangs and their relatives and rarely against the police or other public sector employees. In some cases, violence may also be directed against, or required of, a gang's own member as a part of belonging to that group.

Dealing with drugs can also bring gang members into organized crime and can increase the threat of violent situations. Some gang members deal in drugs either as a way to make money or to fund their own use of drugs.

According to Female Voice in Violence there has been an increase in female members in gangs. Girls may be particularly at risk of sexual exploitation.

There is often pressure for girls associated with young boys in gangs to 'link' with gang members to attain status, for their own protection and perhaps to benefit from a criminal lifestyle. Some girls adopt an antagonist role within gangs.

Safeguarding principles should be a priority for girls who are sexually exploited and abused, which can be a particular risk for girls associated with or targeted by gang members, but it may also affect male gang members. The risk of sexual exploitation and abuse has been highlighted in some local areas and should always be considered as a risk when assessing individuals and when developing a local profile of gangs. For example rape by gang members, as a form of retaliation or as an act of violence, is said to occur quite frequently in some areas and reports to the police are rare due to fear of intimidation or reprisal. This may also be a risk for siblings and other family members of female gang members.

Some children and young people are at risk of exposure to or involvement with groups or individuals who condone violence as a means to political end. Violent extremist causes range from animal rights to far right politics to international terrorism. See also Safeguarding Individuals Against Radicalisation or Violent Extremism: Practice Guidance.

Practitioners should bear in mind when assessing either victims or perpetrators of crime of the potential for young people to become involved in gangs and gang-related violence as a result of being a victim of crime.

Research has shown that victims of crime can become offenders because of their experience. Retaliation and the need for respect can be factors in the progression from victim to offender; carrying a weapon following an attack can help a young person to rebuild respect, as well as offering a feeling of personal protection.

4. Identification and Risk Factors

There are particular risk factors and triggers that young people experience in their lives that can lead to them becoming involved in gangs. Many of these risk factors are similar to involvement in other harmful activities such as youth offending or violent extremism.

Risk factors for a person becoming involved in gangs are illustrated in the assessment triangle on page 19 of the government guidance.

Risk indicators may include:

  • Becoming withdrawn from family;
  • Sudden loss of interest in school - decline in attendance or academic achievement;
  • Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
  • Holding unexplained money or possessions;
  • Staying out unusually late without reason;
  • Sudden change in appearance - dressing in a particular style or 'uniform';
  • Dropping out of positive activities;
  • New nickname;
  • Unexplained physical 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;
  • Broken off with old friends and hanging around with a new group;
  • Increased use of social networking sites;
  • Starting to adopt 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;
  • Being concerns by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhood.

This is not an exhaustive list and should be used as a guide, amended as appropriate in light of local knowledge of the risk factors in a particular area.

There are links between gang-involvement, criminal exploitation and young people going missing from home or care. Some of the factors which can draw gang-involved young people away from home or care into going missing are linked to their involvement in carrying out drugs along county lines. There may be gang-associated child sexual exploitation and relationships which can be strong pull factors for girls who go missing.

In suspected cases of radicalisation, 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.

5. Referral and Assessment

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

See Identification and Referral Flowchart (Page 26) of Safeguarding Children and Young People who may be affected by gang activity.

Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm as a consequence of gang activity including child criminal exploitation should contact the Local Authority's Children's Social Care Service or police for the area in which the child is currently located.

The Single Assessment should be led by a qualified and experienced social worker. As always, evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies will be key. It may be appropriate for the social worker to be embedded in or work closely with, a team (for example in the Police or Youth Offending Service), which has access to 'real time' gang intelligence in order to undertake a reliable assessment. Careful involvement of parents or carers is required as they may be a useful source of information to assess the risk of harm but may condone their child's involvement in gangs.

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 this information and to provide additional support.

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) the Police and Children's Social Care, from the first point of contact with the young person, should consider whether they are victims of child criminal exploitation or trafficking and pursue a safeguarding, rather than criminal justice, response.

Where there is a risk to the life of a child or the likelihood of Significant Harm, emergency action might be necessary to secure the immediate safety.

It is particularly important that girls and young women who have been sexually abused or exploited by gang members have access to appropriate support and counselling, in an environment where they feel safe and secure.

An Osman Warning (a warning given following intelligence received about a threat to life) is so named after the Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) ECHR 101 (28 October 1998) which placed a positive obligation on the authorities to take preventative measures to protect an individual whose life was at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. In the context of gangs, this may occur as a result of gang rivalry or because of an incident occurring within a young person's own gang (for example, threatening to leave or refusing to commit an act of violence). Any Osman Warning should result in an automatic referral 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. In these cases, the decision not to refer should be actively reviewed to allow a referral to Children's Social Care to be made at an appropriate stage.

6. Support and Interventions

Support and interventions should be proportionate, and based on the child's needs identified during assessment. The diagram on page 28 of the government guidance sets out the areas of intervention for the different tiers of need based on the risk factors identified. These will range from family-based/multi-agency interventions, youth inclusion projects, peer mentoring to initiating Care Proceedings.

Practitioners should consider their own safety whilst working with young people and visiting a household. It may be appropriate to interview the child and the parents in a neutral setting. Information sharing about high risk families and individuals (such as those carrying lethal weapons) should be considered across all agencies that might have contact with the individuals concerned.

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 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. In addition, the court must then be satisfied that:

  • The gang injunction is necessary to prevent the respondent from engaging in, encouraging or assisting gang-related violence or drug dealing activity; and/or
  • The gang injunction is necessary to protect the respondent from gang related violence or drug taking activity.

Knife Crime Prevention Orders

Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) are preventative civil orders designed to be an additional tool that the police can use to work with young people and others to help steer them away from knife crime and serious violence by using positive requirements to address factors in their lives that may increase the chances of offending, alongside measures to prohibit certain activities to help prevent future offending.

KCPOs require a multi-agency approach. The police will need to work with relevant organisations and community groups to support those who are issued with a KCPO by the courts, to steer them away from crime.

The intention is that the orders will focus specifically on those most at risk of being drawn into knife crime and serious violence, to provide them with the support they need to turn away from violence. The focus is therefore on providing preventative interventions, rather than on punitive measures. The availability and range of positive requirements will vary between local areas. Examples include:

  • Educational courses;
  • Life skills programmes;
  • Sporting participation – such as membership of sporting clubs or participation in group sports;
  • Awareness raising courses;
  • Targeted intervention programmes;
  • Relationship counselling;
  • Drug rehabilitation programmes;
  • Anger management classes;
  • Mentoring.

KCPOs can be sought for any individual aged 12 upwards. The aim is to prevent the most at- risk or vulnerable individuals from becoming involved in knife possession and knife crime. It is the intention that KCPOs issued to under 18s should be subject to more scrutiny than those issued to adults (for example, through more regular reviews) and will be subject to consultation with youth offending teams.