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We need better systems to stop marginalised teenagers falling into the hands of criminal gangs

4 min read

There is an ongoing epidemic of gangs, drug-running, grooming and serious youth violence in England. Harmful criminal exploitation is now an ever-present reality of some childhoods. It involves tens of thousands of marginalised and vulnerable young people, brings misery, and destroys lives and prospects.

Recent government statistics show that last year almost 13,000 children in England were identified by social services as being involved with gangs; thousands more sexually exploited. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg – the children we know about. 

There are many thousands of others growing up surrounded by addiction issues, domestic violence, serious parental mental illness, or poverty. Frequently they go unsupported. They are the children most likely to fall through gaps in the education or care systems, and who can end up exploited by the ruthless organised criminals or abusers who have such a talent for spotting the most vulnerable.

As children’s commissioner for England, I shone a spotlight on the experiences of these children and, after my term ended last February, I was determined to carry on that work. In September I launched the Commission on Young Lives, a year-long commission that seeks to fight back with co-ordinated national action to transform the outcomes of these marginalised teenagers. 

We are solutions-focused, and our aim is to devise a new and affordable national system of support to prevent crisis and to improve the life chances of young people at risk of getting into trouble with the law. 

Almost 13,000 children in England were identified as being involved with gangs

We will look at how to improve family support, children’s social care, children’s mental health services, prevent exclusions, improve special educational needs (SEN) support, as well as issues around the use of social media, and the increasing number of girls involved with gangs.

The commission is hosted and supported by the Oasis Charitable Trust, who have worked in and with communities, and empowered families and children for decades. Our commission panel includes experts with lived experience of gangs and youth work, children’s mental health specialists, the police, and those with a strong track record of delivery, including Baroness Casey and Sir Kevan Collins. 

There are already so many brilliant organisations and dedicated professionals who are making a difference. But they can only do so much when the national systems that are supposed to protect vulnerable children are under huge pressure and often do not work. 

Two years ago, the Prime Minister promised to “bite the head off the snake” of county lines. Since then, the pandemic has increased the opportunities for gangs and criminals. The police are adept at tackling organised crime, but too often all that happens is a new crew comes along with the same ready supply of vulnerable children to use. To really succeed, we need to stop the conveyor belt of marginalised teenagers dropping into the hands of gangs. 

Yet the recent report by the Lords Public Services Committee showed how the last decade has seen a fall in investment in protecting children at risk of serious harm. While the extra money for family hubs in the Spending Review is welcome, it falls a long way short of the Leadsom review’s ambitious early years plans. Promises of extra money for youth services have also yet to be delivered, long after they were made.

However, I have been encouraged by the support for the commission from ministers and shadow ministers. There is a recognition of and commitment to new ideas and better systems of support to divert marginalised children away from crime.

None of us would want our own children roaming the streets with machetes and drugs, putting their life and future at risk. All of us need to fight harder for those teenagers who are in danger and do more to improve their life chances. The Commission on Young Lives is an opportunity to do that, providing the bold, fresh-thinking and innovation these children so desperately need to keep them safe. 

Anne Longfield is Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, and former children’s commissioner for England 

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Read the most recent article written by Anne Longfield - The government must crack down on growing county lines child exploitation