The Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield announced last week that she was calling for a review into support for female gang members in each local authority area. She also revealed new research showing that a third of children in gangs are female. Although I welcome the Commissioner’s call for a review, action cannot come soon enough for those working on the frontline to tackle gang issues.
The highlighting of women and girls involved in crime is timely. Over the past few years, the issues surrounding gangs and youth violence have spilled into the mainstream. The public hear about stabbings, violence and drug dealing through the media on a near daily basis. Meanwhile, statutory services are dealing with the consequences of county lines operations while trying to manage demand in children’s services, with ever more complex cases coming through the door.
However, despite the fact that we know that girls are also caught up in gangs – 90% of County Lines gangs are using girls – the strategies being used to address the issue are mostly aimed at young males.
Last year, I travelled to the US to research girls and gangs, learning from regional governments, criminal justice agencies and the third sector on how we can identify and support women and girls affected by crime. The culmination of this research was a report, Girls, gangs and their abusive relationships, which was launched at the Greater London Assembly with key stakeholders in the sector, including the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Sophie Linden.
Young women and girls often become involved in gangs through relationships, whether friendship, a familial connection or a sexual relationship. But the nature of these relationships can change over time, from willing participant to coercion and abuse. The knowledge an individual has about the gang makes them fearful of speaking to statutory services and being labelled a ‘snitch’, and they may become vulnerable to violence. This violence impacts on whole communities – so it is something public services must get to grips with.
The evidence of services failing women and girls in gangs is already out there. My report also found that girls in gangs often fly under the radar, are not being identified by the police and are not being referred to services. The result of this is that intervention and early help services are being commissioned on flawed data.
The first step is a system wide analysis of the problem (as used in IMPOWER’s EDGEWORK approach). No single agency holds the solution to gang issues. Instead, children’s services, adult social care, the third sector, housing, the police, youth offending services, and education and health partners need to work collaboratively and create new solutions. Each local authority area has local talent working with the relevant young people in their communities. It is vital that this work is led from the ground up, in partnership with those most affected – the girls themselves.
Another key finding of my report was that successful interventions in the US understood that all the needs of a young person must be met before they could consider exiting a gang. Effective multi-agency partnerships are crucial in facilitating that process – but IMPOWER’s experience of working at the interface between organisations tells us that this is often the biggest hurdle to cross.
A shared ambition for young people involved in gangs must be agreed and committed to by everyone with responsibility for safeguarding young people, surpassing competing priorities and budgets. And that ambition must include a commitment to start talking about the girls in gangs.