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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). The Gang will have some form of identifying structure featuring a hierarchy usually based on age, physical strength, and 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 children, 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, to reduce 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 towns (some of which can be great distances from their home address). 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 Modern Slavery and Child Trafficking Safeguarding Practice Guidance, Referring a Potential Victim of Modern Slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)).

There is a distinction between organised criminal 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  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 use terms such as 'family', 'breddrin', 'crews', 'cuz' (cousins), 'my boys' or simply 'the people I grew up with'.

Serious youth violence relates to offences detailed in Schedule 15 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, including murder, manslaughter, rape, wounding and causing grievous bodily harm.

Safeguarding should focus both on young people who are vulnerable / at risk of becoming involved in gangs as well as those already involved in gang activity. Practitioners should be aware of particular risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons; drugs and sexual exploitation.

Principles Supporting this Guidance

The following principles should be adopted by all professionals when identifying and responding to children (including unborn children) who are affected, or are likely to be affected, by gang activity and/or serious youth violence:

  • Children who are harmed and children who harm should both be treated as in need of support, and professionals should bear in mind that a child may be both a perpetrator and a victim of violence;
  • The safety and welfare of the child is paramount; and
  • All decisions or plans for the child should be based on good quality assessments and be sensitive to issues of gender, nationality, culture and sexuality.

Issues of Concern

The risk or potential risk of harm to the child may be as a victim, a gang member or both – this can be in relation to their peers or because of a gang-involved adult living in their household. Possible risk to members of the child’s family and other children in the community should also be considered. 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

A child who is affected by gang activity, criminal exploitation or serious youth violence can be at risk of Significant Harm through physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Child Sexual Exploitation is a particular risk for young people affected by gang activity. Children often feel a strong sense of belonging to a gang and view this as their family; they often do not see the exploitation or abuse that exists.

Violence is a way for gang members to gain recognition and respect by asserting power and authority over other members of the gang, opposing gangs and within the wider community or ‘territory’. Fear and a need for self-protection can be a key motivation for children who carry weapons, and can afford them a feeling of power.

The specific risks for males and females can be quite different. There is a higher risk of sexual exploitation and abuse for females and they are more likely to have been coerced into involvement with a gang through peer pressure than their male counterparts.

Gang members often groom girls at school using drugs and alcohol, which act to reduce inhibitions and also create dependency. This encourages and coerces them to recruit other girls through their friendships, school and social networks.

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, through fear of repercussion.

Children involved in gangs may be known to other services for offending behaviour or school exclusion. Practitioners should be aware that children who are Looked After by the Local Authority can be particularly vulnerable to becoming involved in gangs.

Children are often in fear of ending their contact with the gang because it might leave them vulnerable to reprisals from former gang members and rival gang members who may see the young person as without protection.

Key Indicators of Gang Involvement

An important feature of gang involvement is that, the more heavily a child is involved with a gang, the less likely they are to talk about it. Signs of gang involvement include:

  • Child becoming withdrawn from family;
  • Sudden loss of interest in school or change in behaviour. Decline in attendance or academic achievement (although it should be noted that some gang members will maintain a good attendance record to avoid coming to notice);
  • Being emotionally ‘switched off’, but also containing frustration / rage;
  • Starting to use new or unknown slang words;
  • Holding unexplained money or possessions;
  • Staying out unusually late without reason, or breaking parental rules consistently;
  • Sudden change in appearance – dressing in a particular style or ‘uniform’ similar to that of other children they hang around with, including a particular colour;
  • Dropping out of positive activities;
  • New nickname;
  • Unexplained physical injuries, and/or refusal to seek / receive medical treatment for 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;
  • Breaking off with old friends and hanging around with one group of people;
  • Associating with known or suspected gang members, closeness to siblings or adults in the family who are gang members;
  • Starting to adopt certain codes of group behaviour e.g. ways of talking and hand signs;
  • Going missing;
  • Being found in towns or cities many miles from home;
  • Expressing aggressive or intimidating views towards other groups of children, some of whom may have been friends in the past;
  • Being scared when entering certain areas; and
  • Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.

This is not an exhaustive list and these risk factors should not be looked at in isolation. A multiplicity of risk factors is likely to exist for a child who is vulnerable to gang involvement. The list should be used as a guide to aid professional judgement in identification, referral and assessment of children.

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. See Safeguarding Children and Young people against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Safeguarding Practice Guidance for more information.


Multi-agency partnerships can maximise the chances for both prevention across the local area and successful intervention with individual children who have become involved with gangs. Effective information-sharing, pooling of resources and regular multi-agency meetings can help agencies to respond both in a timely and appropriate way.

Information and local knowledge about specific gangs should be shared, including the use, or suspected use, of weapons. Police can be a good source of local knowledge and regular intelligence reports can be submitted by professionals in relation to any concerns about individuals or locations.

Police and local authorities across England and Wales have the power to apply for Gang Injunctions for 14 to 17 year olds. These injunctions can allow an application to be made to Court against an individual who has been involved in gang-related violence. It can place a range of prohibitions and requirements on the behaviour and activities of that person.

Protection and Action

The early identification and assessment of children who may be at risk of involvement in gang activity is essential to ensure that the right kind of support and intervention is provided. Support should be proportionate and based on the child’s needs identified during the assessment.

Children may often be at the periphery of involvement for some time before they become active gang members. Children may also follow older siblings into gang involvement. This may provide opportunities for preventative work to be undertaken.

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 Children’s Social Care or the police for the area in which the child is currently located. The Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure should be followed.

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.

When a child or young person is an open case with the Hull Youth Justice Service, an ASSET Plus assessment will be completed by an allocated case manager, along with associated documents such as a ROSH (Risk of Serious Harm), RMP (Risk Management Plan) and VMP (Vulnerability Management Plan).

The outcomes of any assessment should always be shared between the agencies involved with the child. Evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies is essential.

Every effort should be made to hear and respond to the child’s wishes and feelings. Children who are involved in gangs may be reluctant and wary of talking about their experiences. If a child is willing to talk about their involvement with a gang, practitioners should always take what is said seriously. Any information gathered should be taken into account in the assessment and subsequent support put in place.

Information and local knowledge about the specific gang should be shared, including the use, or suspected use, of weapons drug dealing and Child Sexual Exploitation. There should also be consideration of possible risk to members of the child’s family and other children in the community.

Unless there are indications that parental involvement would risk further harm to the child, parents/carers should be involved as early as possible where there are concerns about gang activity.

Practitioners should be aware of any potential threats in relation to their own personal safety, when undertaking assessments. Consideration should be given to the suitability of a home visit or possible need to make alternative arrangements in a neutral, safe setting.

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 so it now also includes 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.

Links to ‘Prevent’

Some groups or individuals condone violence as a means to a political end. Access to the internet and social networking sites provide a way for children to get involved with radical groups. Children can be drawn in to violence themselves or they can be exposed to violent / extremist messages if a family member is involved in an extremist group.

The Government ‘Prevent’ Strategy aims to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists or violent extremists. Professionals across agencies in Hull have been trained in Prevent and staff are encouraged to raise any concerns they have with the Prevent Team who will then support and monitor potential vulnerable individuals. Information and reports can be made through

See also Safeguarding Children and Young people against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Guidance.

Amendments to this Chapter

This guidance was updated in July 2018 to include a link to the Home Office publication Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines. Information was also added throughout to describe how organised criminal groups exploit young people and use them to distribute money and illegal drugs along ‘county lines’.