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32.37 Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May be Affected by Gang Activity

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This policy was last reviewed in December 2020

Date of next review June 2021


Organised crime, such as county lines, is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, human trafficking and missing persons. As such the lines often blur between individual elements of organised crime which can make it harder to spot the signs and know the best approach to tackle it.

This chapter summarises Ending gang violence and exploitation published by the Government in 2016, followed by Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance (published by the Home Office in 2018).  This non-statutory guidance was updated considering the more recent publications in December 2020.

This guidance is primarily aimed at frontline staff who work with children, young people – up to the age of 25. This includes professionals working in children’s social care, education, health, housing, benefits, law enforcement (police) and related partner organisations.

It is intended to help them understand the nature of the risks posed to children and young people related to gang activity, serious violence, criminal exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking. This includes participation in and as victims of gang violence, how signs of gang involvement may manifest themselves and how to deal with such issues.

This guidance is supplementary to:

The pan-Sussex Safeguarding Children Partnerships for Brighton & Hove, East Sussex and West Sussex are undertaking a review of all relevant Child Protection & Safeguarding Policies in relation to gang violence, exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking between December 2020-June 2021.




The United Nations, for statistical purposes, defines those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 as young people.

Criminal exploitation of children and young people is a geographically widespread form of harm that is a typical feature of county lines activity. It is harm which – until recently – was relatively unrecognised by those best placed to spot its potential victims. County lines activity and the associated violence, drug-dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and communities.


County lines is a term used to describe organised crime groups (OCGs) involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines. They are likely to exploit children and young people to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.


Overall, children and young people are particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in the context of OCGs/gangs are potentially:

  1. Not involved in OCGs/gangs, but living in an area where OCGs/gangs are active, which can have a negative impact on their ability to be safe, healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution to society and achieve economic well-being;
  2. Not involved in OCGs/gangs, but at risk of becoming victims of OCGs/gangs;
  3. Not involved in OCGs/gangs but at risk of becoming drawn in, for example, siblings or children of known OCG/gang members; or
  4. OCG/Gang-involved and at risk of harm through their OCG/gang-related activities (e.g. drug supply, weapon use, sexual exploitation and risk of attack from own or rival OCG/gang members).

A person may be both a victim and perpetrator/offender. When assessments and interventions by service providers treat a young person as just a victim or just an offender, they are not considering the complex, cyclical nature of the victim-offender link and the factors that influence young people’s lives. Statutory understanding of the coercion and grooming tactics of OCGs/gangs has increased considerably since the Government published Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May Be Affected by Gang Activity in 2010. This includes a greater understanding of peer-on-peer abuse and how to adopt a contextual safeguarding approach to understand and respond to peer-on-peer abuse.

Definitions of a ‘Gang’ / Organised Crime Group (OCG)


Being part of a friendship group is a normal element of growing up and it can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise. Although some group gatherings can lead to increased anti-social behaviour and youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of an OCG/gang.


A gang is defined as a “relatively durable group who have a collective identity and meet frequently. They are predominantly street-based groups of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the groups’ identity”.

The Pyramid of Gang Involvement (Hallsworth & Young, 2004) sets out a tiered approach to defining gangs. This definition and diagram can be found on page 13 of the 2010 guidance.


An Organised Crime Group (OCG) is defined in S.45(6) of Serious Crime Act 2015 as a group which has as its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities; and consists of three or more people to act together for that purpose. It is not necessary for the individual participating in the OCGs activities to know any of the group members (S.45(7)). It is important for practitioners to recognise that ‘gang’ activity is essentially organised crime.


This guidance focuses on safeguarding those children and young people at Level 2, i.e. those on the cusp of/vulnerable to making the transition to OCG/gang involvement as well as those already involved in OCGs/gangs


At the top level (Level 3) are organised criminal gangs, traditionally composed principally of adult men. At the bottom level (Level 1) are peer groups.


OCG/Gang-Related Activity - What is the Risk?


The national picture on county lines continues to develop, but there are recorded cases of:

  • Children as young as 12 years old being exploited or moved by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area. 15-16 years is the most common age range.
  • Both males and females are being exploited.
  • White British children being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection, but a person of any ethnicity or nationality may be exploited.
  • The use of social media to make initial contact with children and young people.
  • Class A drug users being targeted so that gangs can takeover their homes (known as ‘cuckooing’).
  • Vulnerable young people, e.g. those with a learning disability or mental health needs, living alone, may be targeted.

County lines exploitation is widespread, with gangs from big cities including London, Liverpool and Manchester operating throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Gangs are known to target children and vulnerable adults; some of the factors that heighten a person’s vulnerability are summarised below:

  • Having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse;
  • Lack of a stable/safe home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example);
  • Social isolation or social difficulties*;
  • Economic vulnerability*;
  • Homelessness or insecure accommodation status;
  • Connections with other people involved in OCGs/gangs;
  • Having a physical or learning disability;
  • Having mental health or substance misuse issues;
  • Being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories);
  • Being excluded from mainstream education, in particular, attending a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU)*.

Practitioners should consider the risks to young people involved in OCGs/gangs from violence and weapons, drugs, and sexual exploitation. Factors with an asterisk (*) indicate those with additional risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions.


Young people involved in OCGs/gangs are more likely to suffer harm themselves through retaliatory violence, displaced retaliation, territorial violence with other OCGs/gangs, or other harm suffered whilst committing a crime. Young people involved in OCGs/gangs are more likely to possess and use weapons, knives, and guns. Evidence shows that those carrying weapons are more likely to become victims of weapon attacks and the risk of being seriously injured increases in group situations. There is some evidence suggesting younger children carrying or using guns and girls and young women being used to carry guns on behalf of OCG/gang members.


OCGs/gangs use violence to assert their power and authority in a local area and may have to assert their power concerning other OCGs/gangs in the area. Therefore, so much OCG/gang-related crime and violence is perpetrated against other members of OCGs/gangs and their relatives and rarely against the police or other public sector employees. In some cases, violence may also be directed against, or required of, an OCGs/gangs’ own member as a part of belonging to that group.


Child criminal exploitation (CCE) is broader than just county lines and includes for instance, children forced to work on cannabis farms or to commit theft.  See also,  modern slavery and/or human trafficking


Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:

  • Can affect any child or young person (regardless of gender) under the age of 18 years;
  • Can still be exploitative even if the activity appears consensual;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people in groups; and
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). 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. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example, a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm their family.


According to Female Voice in Violence, there has been an increase in female members in OCGs/gangs. There is often pressure for girls associated with young boys in OCGs/gangs to ‘link’ with OCG/gang members to attain status, for their own protection and perhaps to benefit from a criminal lifestyle. Some girls adopt an antagonist role within OCGs/gangs to maintain status by ‘linking’ with opposing gang members, or with more than one boy within their own group which can lead to conflict between gangs or inter-gang conflict.”

Safeguarding principles should be a priority for girls who are sexually exploited and abused, which can be a particular risk for girls associated with or targeted by OCG/gang member. It may also affect male OCG/gang members. The risk of sexual exploitation and abuse has been highlighted in some local areas and should always be considered as a risk when assessing individuals and when developing a local profile of OCGs/gangs. For example, rape by OCG/gang members, as a form of retaliation or as an act of violence, is said to occur quite frequently in some areas and reports to the police are rare due to fear of intimidation or reprisal. This may also be a risk for siblings and other family members of female OCG/gang members.


Some children and young people are at risk of exposure to or involvement with groups or individuals who condone violence to a political end. Violent extremist causes range from animal rights to far-right politics to international terrorism


Research has shown that victims of crime can become offenders because of their adverse experience. Retaliation and the need for respect can be factors in the progression from victim to offender; carrying a weapon following an attack can help a young person rebuild respect and offer a feeling of personal protection.

Practitioners should bear in mind when assessing either victims or perpetrators of the crime of the potential for young people to become involved in OCGs/gangs and OCG/gang-related violence due to being a victim of crime.


Increasingly county lines exploitation is considered a form of modern slavery and/or human trafficking.

Identification and Risk Factors


There are particular risk factors and triggers that young people experience in their lives that can lead to them becoming involved in OCGs/gangs. Many of these risk factors are similar to involvement in other harmful activities such as youth offending or violent extremism. Risk factors for a person becoming involved in gangs are illustrated in the assessment triangle on page 19 of the government guidance.


A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or an associated of an OCG/gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.


Some potential indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and/or being found out of the area;
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes or mobile phones;
  • Excessive receipts of texts/phone calls and/or having multiple handsets;
  • Relationships with controlling/older individuals or groups;
  • Leaving home/care without explanation;
  • Suspicion of physical assault/unexplained injuries;
  • Parental/carer concerns;
  • Carrying weapons;
  • A significant decline in school results/performance;
  • OCG/gang association or isolation from peers or social networks;
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing.

More information on the signs to look out for is available in the Home Office guidance Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines.


This is not an exhaustive list and should be used as a guide, amended as appropriate considering local knowledge of the risk factors in a particular area.

Referral and Assessment


The Early Help Plan may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to the risk of involvement in OCG/gang activity. Please refer to ‘What to do if you are concerned’ on pages 6-10 of the Government Guidance.


Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm due to OCG/gang activity should contact the Local Authority’s Children’s Social Care Service or police for the area in which the child is currently located.


A qualified and experienced social worker should lead the Child and Family Assessment. As always, evidence and information sharing across all relevant agencies will be key. It may be appropriate for the social worker to be embedded in or work closely with a team that has access to ‘real-time’ OCG/gang intelligence to undertake a reliable assessment. Careful involvement of parents or carers is required as they may be a useful source of information to assess the risk of harm but may condone their child’s involvement in OCGs/gangs.


Practitioners should be aware that children who are Looked After by the Local Authority can be particularly vulnerable to becoming involved in gangs. There may be a need to review their Care Plan in light of this information and provide additional support.


Practitioners should be aware that children who are Looked After by the Local Authority can be particularly vulnerable to becoming involved in gangs. There may be a need to review their Care Plan in light of this information and to provide additional support.


Where there is a risk to a child's life or the likelihood of Significant Harm, emergency action might be necessary to secure the immediate safety.


Girls and young women who have been sexually abused or exploited by OCG/gang members must have access to appropriate support and counselling, in an environment where they feel safe and secure.


A Threat to Life Warning (previously known as Osman Warning)  (a warning given following intelligence received about a threat to life) places a positive obligation on the authorities to take preventative measures to protect an individual whose life was at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. In the context of gangs, this may occur as a result of gang rivalry or because of an incident occurring within a young person’s own gang (for example, threatening to leave or refusing to commit an act of violence). Any Osman Warning should result in an automatic referral to Children’s Social Care, the initiation of a Strategy Discussion and consideration of the need for immediate safeguarding action unless to do so would place the child at greater risk. In these cases, the decision not to refer should be actively reviewed to allow a referral to Children’s Social Care to be made at an appropriate stage.


Children who have parents (or other close associates/family members) who are involved in gangs/organised crime groups are also at risk. This brings in to play potential collateral risks to these children if the parent (associate/family members) are issued a Threat to Life notice.


Any Threat to Life Warning should result in an automatic referral to Children’s Social Care, the initiation of a Strategy Discussion and consideration of the need for immediate safeguarding action unless to do so would place the child at greater risk. In these cases, the decision not to refer should be actively reviewed to allow a referral to Children’s Social Care to be made at an appropriate stage.


Section 52 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 places a statutory duty on designated First Responder Agencies such as local authorities to notify the Home Office (as Single Competent Authority) of all potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. For children, this means a referral to Children’s Social Care who will lead on safeguarding arrangements and submit an online report to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).  For people over the age of 18, it requires the consent of the adult potential victim.

Support and Interventions


Support and interventions should be proportionate, rational and based on the child’s needs identified during assessment. These will range from family-based/multi-agency interventions, youth inclusion projects, peer mentoring to initiating Care Proceedings.


Practitioners should consider their own safety whilst working with young people and visiting a household. It may be appropriate to interview the child and the parents in a neutral setting. Information sharing about high-risk families and individuals (such as those carrying lethal weapons) should be considered across all agencies that might have contact with the individuals concerned.

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This page is correct as printed on Thursday 23rd of September 2021 01:00:23 AM please refer back to this website ( for updates.