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Drug gangs adapt during COVID-19 to groom new recruits

Drug gangs have adapted to new ways to groom new recruits during COVID-19, a report by the National Youth Agency has warned.

While headline statistics reveal a reduction in gang-activity and exploitation, drug gangs have employed new methods such as online activity to groom new recruits and there are fears for an explosion in gang activity and child criminal exploitation post-lockdown.

Leigh Middleton, NYA Chief Executive, said: “More young people are in potentially unsafe environment with little or no contact and limited access to support services during lockdown. Young people still go missing and stay away from home, but often for shorter periods and are not reported missing. Some young people are not necessarily known by the police or other services, but most are likely to be known by youth workers.”

“Just at the time when they are needed the most, many youth work projects stopped or become severely restricted due to COVID-19. Now is the time for more youth work, not less,” he added.

The report highlights that 60,000 young people aged 10–17 identify as a gang member or know a gang member who is a relative. This rises to over 300,000 when adding young people who know someone in a gang, and up to 500,000 when also including young people in groups exposed to ‘risky behaviour’ associated with gangs. With regard to those most at risk of gang-associated activities and exploitation, over one million young people come from a ‘vulnerable family background’, of which nearly 450,000 are unknown to formal or statutory services but are likely to be known by youth workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified vulnerabilities and exposed more young people to gang-associated activities and exploitation. Over one million young people face risks from the ‘toxic trio’ living in households with addiction, poor mental health and domestic abuse. Furthermore, there are 83,000 young people living in temporary accommodation, while a further 380,000 are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Looked-after children, young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and learning difficulties are all particularly vulnerable in some areas to gang-related activity or exploitation in cases of disruptive behaviour and non-compliance with lockdown or social distancing.

School closures means many young people are now in potentially unsafe environments. This is in addition to the 700,000 young people aged 8–19 who are persistently absent from school or not in education, employment or training and will need sustained support post-lockdown.

The NYA highlights that at the beginning of lockdown, drug dealers had to come more to the fore with young people unable to move around as much as before. There was a spike in arrests in some areas, but gangs have since adapted.
Activity has been removed from the streets, becoming less visible, and, where some activity has ‘paused’, the gang members are simply storing up for a rapid return post-lockdown.

“There has been a switch to a new demographic for gang activity in public spaces, and those involved are less visible as their gang associations are largely ‘unknown’ by services (however, they are likely to be known by youth workers). This pattern will vary by area, but there is increased concern around the use of girls for gang activity as a phenomenon, as girls and young women find it easier to move around during lockdown while young men remain very visible,” said the report.

The report highlights:

- Youth workers in some areas report that gangs are also using lockdown as cover for a ‘recruitment drive’ from among young people with vulnerabilities heightened through lockdown.

- Gangs are active in grooming vulnerable young people outdoors in unsafe environments who have nowhere else to go.

- For some young people, lockdown has given them a reason to step back from gang activity, but in some cases, diversionary projects have stopped or the lack of a youth worker to talk to has restricted opportunities to exit gangs safely.

The NYA fears that just at the time when they are needed the most, many youth work projects have stopped or become severely restricted due to COVID-19. There are fears that some services will not re-open post-lockdown unless youth work is recognised as an essential service and youth workers as key workers. During the lockdown, many charity youth workers have been furloughed, local authority youth workers have been redeployed and trusted adult volunteers are self-isolating.

The report urges:

1) Youth work to be classified as an essential key service.

2) Home Office guidance for Violence Reduction Units should include youth services and the Police and Crime Commissioners should embed a youth work response for early help and prevention within public health approach strategies in local areas.

3) There needs to be a cross-departmental government strategy on child criminal exploitation, (CCE) backed up by changes to relevant statutory guidance and inclusive of youth services.

4) Supporting the call by the Home Affairs select committee and others for a Youth Service Guarantee, there should be significant investment in training, and up-skilling in response to COVID-19, on safeguarding, trauma and bereavement, and detached youth work.

“We must act now; there is no time to waste. Youth work must be classified as an essential key service. Youth services need to be embedded in the guidance and strategies for Violence Reduction Units. Overall government must invest to rapidly increase the size of the youth work workforce over the next five years, sustained over the long term, underpinned by national standards and training for youth workers and to up-skill trusted adult volunteers,” the report concluded.

Gangs and Exploitation A youth work response to COVID-19

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