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3.29 Gangs, Serious Youth Violence and Violent Extremism


  1. Background
  2. Definition of Gangs and Gang Members
  3. Understanding Why Young People Join Gangs
  4. Weapons
  5. Gangs and Sexual Exploitation
  6. Indicators of Involvement in Gang Activity
  7. What to do if You Suspect a Child or Young Person is Involved in Gang Activity or Serious Youth Violence
  8. Violent Extremism
  9. What to do if you Suspect a Child or Young Person is Involved in Violent Extremism

1. Background

The involvement of children and young people in gang culture in the UK is a matter of national concern. The risk or potential risk of harm to the child may be as a victim, a perpetrator or both - in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household.

A child who is affected by gang activity or serious youth violence can suffer Significant Harm through Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse. Significant Harm is defined as a situation where a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, a degree of Physical, Sexual and / or emotional harm (through abuse or neglect), which is so harmful that there needs to be compulsory intervention by Child Protection.

2. Definition of Gangs and Gang Members

Groups of children often gather together in public places to socialise, and peer association is an essential feature of most children's transition to adulthood. Groups of children can be disorderly and/or anti-social without engaging in criminal activity.

Defining a gang is difficult, however it can be broadly 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.

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'.

Definitions may need to be highly specific to particular areas or neighbourhoods if they are to be useful. Furthermore, professionals should not seek to apply this or any other definition of a gang too rigorously; if a child or others think s/he is involved with or affected by 'a gang', then a professional should act accordingly.

Violence is a way for gang members to gain recognition and respect by asserting their power and authority in the street, with a large proportion of street crime perpetrated against members of other gangs or the relatives of gang members.

Youth violence, serious or otherwise, may be a function of gang activity. However, it could equally represent the behaviour of a child acting individually in response to his or her particular history and circumstances.

3. Understanding Why Young People Join Gangs

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that young people join gangs for a number of different reasons. Therefore any strategy to prevent them from doing so must be multi-faceted. It must also directly engage with young people, and focus on what they say is the reasons behind their involvement in gangs. Successful engagement with young people needs to start from where they are, and with an approach they understand.

Reasons given by young people for joining gangs include:

  • Protection from other gang members;
  • Nothing better to do;
  • Peer pressure;
  • Defending what they regard as their territory;
  • A sense of belonging;
  • It gives them respect, self-esteem and status among their peers (see Knife, gun and gang-related violence).

Factors that are also noted as influencing gang involvement:

  • Parenting which is cold / uncaring, non-nurturing and neglectful;
  • Parenting which includes harsh disciplining;
  • Maltreatment, such as physical or sexual abuse in childhood (abuse by adults and peers within and outside of the family); and / or
  • Trauma such as domestic violence and abuse or involvement in or witnessing conflict violence (see also Responding to Children and Young People who are at Risk from Domestic Violence and Abuse - Policy and Guidance for Professionals).
  • One factor which influences a child's propensity to imitate violence is parenting which is permissive and neglectful, resulting in a lack of guidance and creating ineffectiveness and poor self-control for a child. The child is then not equipped to resist an environment or group which instigates violence.

4. Weapons

Fear and a need for self-protection is a key motivation for children to carry a weapon - it affords a child a feeling of power. Neighbourhoods with high levels of deprivation and social exclusion generally have the highest rates of gun and knife crime. Children are more likely to carry knives and other weapons than guns.

Professionals working with children who may have reason to be fearful in their neighbourhood or school / FE college should be alert to the possibility that a child may carry a weapon.

5. Gangs and Sexual Exploitation

There is evidence of a high incidence of rape of girls who are involved with gangs. Some senior gang members pass their girlfriends around to lower ranking members and sometimes to the whole group at the same time. Very few rapes by gang members are reported,

Gang members often groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, which act as disinhibitors and also create dependency, and encourage / coerce them to recruit other girls through school / social networks.

See also Child Sexual Exploitation Procedure and Safeguarding Children who may have been Trafficked Procedure.

6. Indicators of Involvement in Gang Activity

Issues and behaviours possibly indicative of a risk of involvement in gang activity likely to be of concern include:

  • Significant negative behaviour changes;
  • Withdrawal from family members;
  • Consistently breaking parental rules;
  • Changes in type of clothing worn, e.g. style, colour, type;
  • Sporadic school attendance;
  • Gang type graffiti on school books, bags, bedroom walls etc;
  • Young person receives calls from others who refuse to identify themselves, or identify themselves by nickname only. They also may refer to the young person by a nickname;
  • Associating with known or suspected gang members;
  • Changes in language / speech e.g. started speaking street language, or content of what they talk about has changed to a suggestion of street / gang involvement;
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation, particularly of girls (as gang initiation ritual or revenge attacks by other gangs);
  • Known or suspected possession of knife or gun;
  • Known or suspected involvement in the supply of drugs;
  • It should be noted, however, that some of the above indicators are also behaviours commonly associated with teenagers. Care should be taken not to erroneously label a young person as being involved in gangs.

The Gang Risk Factors document gives a comprehensive list of risk factors for children and young people becoming involved in gangs.

7. What to do if You Suspect a Child or Young Person is Involved in Gang Activity or Serious Youth Violence

Professionals should always take what the child tells them seriously. They should assess this together with the child's presenting behaviours in the context of whatever information they know or can gather from the child about the risk factors described in the risk assessment framework for children affected by gangs and serious youth violence.

Potentially a child involved with a gang or with serious violence could be both a victim and a perpetrator. This requires professionals to assess and support his/her welfare and well-being needs at the same time as assessing and responding in a criminal justice capacity.

If the concern is in regards to the young person (such as sexual exploitation, bullying, etc) the Professional should contact the Children’s Multi Agency Safeguarding Team. See Oxfordshire Children’s Social Care Procedures, Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

Professionals should alert the Community Safety Unit in their District  if they have concerns in regards to a young person’s involvement with a gang. A member of the team will have specialist knowledge in relation to gangs and serious youth violence and can act as an adviser to other professionals in cases where there are concerns that a child is / could be affected by gangs and/or serious youth violence.

8. Violent Extremism

Particularly from their teenage years onwards children can be vulnerable to getting involved with radical groups through direct contact with members or, increasingly, through the internet. This can put the child at risk of being drawn in to criminal activity and has the potential to cause Significant Harm.

9. What to do if you Suspect a Child or Young Person is Involved in Violent Extremism

Work to safeguard children and adults, providing early intervention to protect and divert people away from being drawn into terrorist activity, is at the heart of the Government’s Prevent Strategy (1). Supporting vulnerable individuals requires clear frameworks – including guidance on how to identify vulnerability and assess risk, where to seek support and measures to ensure that we do not ever confuse prevention and early intervention with law enforcement.

Channel (2) forms part of the cross-Government Prevent Strategy. The aim of Prevent is to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists, by challenging the spread of terrorist ideology, supporting vulnerable individuals, and working in key sectors and institutions.

(1) ‘Prevent’ is one of the four strands of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. It aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. More information can be found here:

(2) Channel uses existing collaboration between local authorities, statutory partners (such as the education and health sectors, social services, children’s and youth services and offender management services), the police and the local community to identify individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism, assess the nature and extent of that risk, and develop the most appropriate support plan for the individuals concerned.Channel is about safeguarding children and adults from being drawn into committing terrorist-related activity. It is about early intervention to protect and divert people away from the risk they face before illegality occurs.

Professionals who are concerned about a young person being involved or being at risk of being involved in violent extremism, they should refer to the Safer Communities Unit Manager who will refer the case to the local Channel Co-ordinator.

The Safer Communities Unit Manager will also liaise with the Oxfordshire Safer Communities Partnership Business Group, which provides a multi-agency approach to safeguarding those at risk of being drawn into terrorism though ensuring an appropriate package of support is put in place.

Channel Guidance states that if a referred individual is under the age of 18 the Channel Co-ordinator must liaise with Children's Social Care to agree how best to manage the case.

Following initial discussion a decision needs to be made on how to progress the case (e.g. as a safeguarding issue, under Channel, CAF, or another support process) and establish how this will be reviewed. This decision can be taken on a case by case basis or a decision can be made by all local partners to use one particular system for the referral of all children.

The Channel Vulnerability Assessment Framework provides a description of the vulnerability assessment framework used by Channel projects to guide decisions about whether an individual needs support to address their vulnerability to radicalisation and the kind of support that they need. It should be read alongside the Channel guidance.


Community Safety Units (gangs and serious youth violence):

  • Oxford City: 01865 252283;
  • South Oxfordshire: 01491 823615;
  • Vale of White Horse: 01235 540485;
  • Cherwell: 01295 221803;
  • West Oxfordshire: 01993 861060.

Safer Communities Manager - Safer Communities Unit (Violent Extremism)

Contact number: 01865 815397

Email address:

Children’s Multi Agency Safeguarding Teams

  • Emergency Duty Team (out of hours service): 0800 833 408;
  • Banbury (North): 01865 816670;
  • Oxford (City): 01865 323048;
  • Abingdon (South): 01865 897983.