Gang Activity, Youth Violence and Criminal Exploitation Affecting Children (CCE)


See also: Knife, Gun and Gang Crime Policy and County Lines: Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults on the Home Office website.

Criminal exploitation and County Lines: A toolkit for working with children and young people (The Children's Society, December 2017)


Child Sexual Exploitation Procedure

Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure


In August 2022, a link was added to CPS Guidance on Victims of Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Smuggling. This guidance aims to identify victims of modern slavery, human trafficking and smuggling at an earlier point in criminal investigations.

This chapter is currently under review.

1. Introduction

Addressing concerns arising from a young person's involvement in in a gang or child criminal exploitation (CCE) is a multi-agency issue. Partnership working and information sharing are, therefore, key to safeguarding children and young people at risk of gang-related harm or criminal exploitation.

Young people can be put at risk by gang activity both through participation in, and as victims of, gang violence. Victims and offenders are often the same people. When practitioners treat a young person as just a victim or just an offender, they are not taking into account the complex, cyclical nature of the victim-offender link and the factors that influence young people's lives.

Overall, children particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in the gang context are those who are:

  1. Not involved in gangs, but living in an area where gangs are active, which can have a negative impact on their ability to be safe, healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being;
  2. Not involved in gangs, but at risk of becoming victims of gangs;
  3. Not involved in gangs but at risk of becoming drawn in, for example, they are siblings or children of known gang members; or
  4. Gang-involved and at risk of harm through their gang-related activities (e.g. drug supply, weapon use, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation and risk of attack from own or rival gang members).
Criminal exploitation involves taking advantage of and grooming children and young people, forcing them to engage in various forms of criminal activity. Young people who are criminally exploited may not initially recognise themselves as being exploited, and it is important therefore that practitioners are able to identify children who are being criminally exploited as well as those at risk of criminal exploitation, and know how to share this information appropriately in order that robust interventions can be put in place.

2. Definitions

2.1 Gangs

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 is defined as 'a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group; engage in criminal activity and violence; lay claim over territory (not necessarily geographical but can include an illegal economy territory); have some form of identifying structural feature; and are in conflict with other, similar, gangs'.

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);They have some form of identifying structure featuring a hierarchy usually based on age, physical strength, 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 young people and adults.

There is a distinction between Organised Crime 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 and the sexual abuse of girls and boys by Organised Criminal Groups. Young men and women may be at risk of sexual exploitation in these groups.

Trying to distinguish actual gang activity from much larger numbers of groups of young people who are collectively involved in low level offending and anti social behaviour can be complicated by a number of factors. These include:

  • Young people's own claims to being a gang member to boost their credibility;
  • A label of gang or gang member attributed by others to any form of group offending by young people;
  • Groups young people are involved in may overlap, and membership is fluid;
  • Offending by groups of young people includes crimes often associated with gangs, but it also accounts for much offending by young people.

Safeguarding should focus on both young people who are vulnerable to making the transition to gang involvement as well as those already involved in gangs. Practitioners should be aware of particular risks to young people involved in gangs from violence and weapons, drugs and sexual exploitation.

2.2 Child Criminal Exploitation

There is no legal definition of 'Child Criminal Exploitation' or CCE, but it is increasingly being recognised as a major factor behind crime in communities in the UK, which simultaneously victimises vulnerable young people and exposes them to risk of often serious harm.

Organised criminal gangs exploit children and young people to move and sell drugs and money across the country, known as 'county lines' because the activity extends across county boundaries and is coordinated by the use of dedicated mobile phones or deal 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, which reduces their risk of detection.

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 other towns (some of which can be great distances from their home addresses). 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. Young people are groomed to commit offences on behalf of other criminals.

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 / modern slavery 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. Remember that young people who are criminally exploited may be extremely fearful of speaking out, both as a result of the potential reprisals from the gangs / criminals who have exploited them and because they will be afraid of admitting to their involvement in criminal activity.

Where there are concerns that children are victims of child criminal exploitation they should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism. (See Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation) Procedure.

2.2.1 Doncaster Definition of Child Criminal Exploitation

Agencies in Doncaster have agreed the following definition of Child Criminal Exploitation:

Child Criminal Exploitation relates to any activity where a child, or vulnerable young adult up to the age of 21 (if they are also care leavers or accessing a service from the Children with Disabilities team), is coerced, groomed, incentivised or threatened to become involved in criminal activity where they are too fearful to refuse the activities requested of them.

Child Criminal Exploitation may also apply to socially isolated young people who feel a kinship to other young people, adults or groups who offer inclusion into a group in exchange for engaging in criminal activities, which they otherwise would not have done.

Child Criminal Exploitation should also be considered in the cases of children whose parents are known by agencies to be involved in organised crime and who are therefore exposed to criminal activity, whether they are engaged in it themselves, or observe it, as a consequence of residing in that household and the child's emotional, mental or physical health is impacted upon as a result.

3. Understanding why Young People Join Gangs or are at Risk of Criminal Exploitation

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.

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; and
  • It gives them respect, self-esteem and status among their peers.

Peer grooming is common and takes place in schools and via social media. Music videos on YouTube are used to glamorise gangs and to draw in children from wider social and geographical areas.

The criminal exploitation of children includes a combination of:

  • Pull factors: children performing tasks for others resulting in them gaining accommodation, food, gifts, status or a sense of safety, money or drugs; often the hook is through the perpetrator supplying Class B drugs such as cannabis to the child or young person;
  • Push factors: children escaping from situations where their needs are neglected and there is exposure to unsafe individuals, where there is high family conflict or the absence of a primary attachment figure;
  • Control: 'Brain washing', violence and threats of violence by those exploiting the child particularly when the child or young person is identified by the police, they are expected to take full responsibility for the offences for which they are charged – i.e. possession and supply of illegal substances.
The majority of children or young people who enter into exploitation appear to do so 'willingly' however, their involvement is indicative of coercion or desperation rather than choice. Many young people do not recognise that they are being exploited or that they are at risk.

4. Risks to Young People Involved in Gangs or who are being Criminally Exploited

The risk or potential risk of harm to the child from gangs may be as a victim, a gang member or both - in relation to their peers or to a gang-involved adult in their household. Teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to recruitment into gangs and involvement in gang violence as well as child criminal exploitation. 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.

Children with special educational needs, mental health problems or disabilities are known to be purposely targeted for criminal exploitation. Children in Care can also be vulnerable, particularly those in residential children's homes and in pupil referral units. Children who have been placed out of their home area are at particular risk.

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. Girls may be particularly at risk of sexual exploitation.

Violence is a way for gang members or exploiters to gain recognition and respect by asserting their power and authority.

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

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.

5. Indicators of Involvement in Gang Activity

  • Child withdrawn from family;
  • Sudden loss of interest in school. 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 young people 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;
  • Returning home looking dishevelled;
  • Being found by Police in towns or cities many miles from home;
  • Expressing aggressive or intimidating views towards other groups of young people, some of whom may have been friends in the past;
  • Being scared when entering certain areas;
  • Concerned by the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.

An important feature of gang involvement and child criminal exploitation is that, the more heavily a child is involved, the less likely they are to talk about it.

There are clear links between gang-involvement, child 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 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.

6. What to do if You are Concerned that a Child or Young Person is Involved in Gang Activity or is being Criminally Exploited

As a practitioner there are a number of different ways in which you may come across children or young people who are involved in gangs or who are being criminally exploited. You may work directly with them, or with another sibling or extended family member. You may work with their parent/s or another adult, who expresses concern to you. You may work with a child or young person who is their friend and who is worried about what they are involved in. The concern may be that either someone is going to harm them, or that they are going to harm someone else.

If you have any concerns about a child or young person, it is your duty to act to safeguard and promote their welfare. Prompt action by you may prevent them from being harmed or from harming others.

The most effective method to prevent children becoming criminally exploited is early intervention and prevention. This enables preventative services to be implemented at an early stage to support the young person and their family to make positive life choices and distance themselves from serious and organised crime. The Early Help Assessment may be crucial in the early identification of children and young people who need additional support due to risk of involvement in gang activity.

The Targeted Youth Support Service (TYS) works with children and young people who are at risk of becoming involved in anti-social and offending behaviour. There are a number of formal mechanisms in place which will support a coordinated multi-agency approach to preventing young people becoming involved in gang activity and also to protect and support those already involved in to extricate themselves from gangs and to make health, aspirational and pro-social life choices. These are:
  • Reduce the risk of young people's involvement in gang activity in the borough by focusing resources on education, prevention and constructive challenge; including the deployment of the mobile prevention element of team EPIC (The Prevention Service);
  • Putting the correct structures in place for individuals that are a viable alternative to gang activity; and offer a range of programmes and interventions to assist them in breaking ties with associates who are known to engage in gang activity;
  • Provide a supportive but challenging framework towards engaging young people and encourage participation with nationally recognised programmes which promote aspiration and inclusiveness, i.e. NCS, Premier League Kicks, DOFE;
  • Proactively and overtly targeting young people as the focus for intervention; through analysis of first time entrants via the reducing re-offending toolkit and targeting these individuals for intervention from Team EPIC;
  • Using Team EPIC and YOS Police resources to undertake disruption activity in areas where gangs are known to operate, particularly at times when programmes and interventions are being offered in the locality, to allow young people and families the opportunity to attend safely;
  • Work with parents, carers and schools in order to engage young people and to reintegrate into mainstream services;
  • Enable young people to understand the law so that they can build bridges with the Police, and teaching children about the risks associated with gang culture;
  • Working with the community to give them a confidential forum to report concerns re weapon crime, and to empower local communities to play a greater role in reducing gang activity in their area; and
  • Provide appropriate positive mentors for young people, taking account of any personal characteristics which may impact on engagement, i.e. ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality.

Anyone with concerns about gang involvement can contact the Targeted Youth Support Service (TYS) and they will arrange to visit the child or young person with you, and carry out an assessment at that point. The Team EPIC worker will keep you informed of the outcome of the assessment, and any interventions that are put in place as a result. You will be part of any multi-agency meeting that arises as a result of their involvement with Team EPIC or other provision available from TYS.

In addition, anyone with concerns about a young person's involvement in a gang can contact the NSPCC a 24-hour helpline (0800 800 500). The helpline is funded by the Home Office is available to help parents, carers or any other adult worried about a child or young person at risk from gang-related activity. This includes children and young people who are not themselves in a gang, but may be at risk of being targeted by gang members.

CPS Guidance on Victims of Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Smuggling aims to identify victims of modern slavery, human trafficking and smuggling at an earlier point in criminal investigations and before charging decisions are made by the CPS. The aims is to increase the number of prosecutions of criminals exploiting modern slaves, whilst safeguarding against the criminalising of trafficked victims. The Guidance also sets out practical support for victims and witnesses, including: the ability to run victimless prosecutions so that they do not need to give evidence in court; other special measure to support trafficked victims, such as the use of virtual recorded interviews which can be played in court; video links for victims who have chosen to return to their home countries so that they can still give evidence if needed.

6.1 Responding to Child Criminal Exploitation in Doncaster

Neighbourhood inspectors will consult their Neighbourhood Action Group (which are monthly multi-agency locality based meetings) to identify any children deemed to be a risk of Child Criminal Exploitation in those localities.

At the meetings the responsible inspector will complete a brief screening tool which will determine if the child is potentially at risk of, or is experiencing CCE.

Following completion of the screening tool, all cases which meet the threshold will be brought to the Protecting Vulnerable Young People Panel (PVYP).

At PVYP the presenting risks will be discussed by the panel and cases where there is an identified risk will be subject to a full multi-agency Vulnerability Checklist Assessment (VCL) and will be heard at the next PVYP.

It is the responsibility of the Chair of PVYP to determine which agency is best placed to lead on the production of the VCL, but its completion should involve consultation with other agencies as appropriate.

In situations where a case is heard at PVYP, but does not meet the threshold for the completion of a VCL, it should be noted that this does not imply that there is no identified risk in this case. Such young people should continue to monitored by agencies involved and, in cases where there is a change to the young person's situation or new identified risks, then the case should be re-referred to PYVP following completion of a new screening tool at the relevant Neighbourhood Action Group Meeting.

It should be noted that this process does not replace any existing safeguarding processes, either statutory or non-statutory. If a child is determined to be at immediate risk from child criminal exploitation in respect of their physical, emotional or mental health then a referral to DCST One Front Door should be made in line with existing policy. See Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

6.2 Knife Crime Prevention Orders

Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) are preventative civil orders designed to be an additional tool that the police can use to work with young people and others to help steer them away from knife crime and serious violence by using positive requirements to address factors in their lives that may increase the chances of offending, alongside measures to prohibit certain activities to help prevent future offending.

KCPOs require a multi-agency approach. The police will need to work with relevant organisations and community groups to support those who are issued with a KCPO by the courts, to steer them away from crime.

The intention is that the orders will focus specifically on those most at risk of being drawn into knife crime and serious violence, to provide them with the support they need to turn away from violence. The focus is therefore on providing preventative interventions, rather than on punitive measures. The availability and range of positive requirements will vary between local areas. Examples include:

  • Educational courses;
  • Life skills programmes;
  • Sporting participation – such as membership of sporting clubs or participation in group sports;
  • Awareness raising courses;
  • Targeted intervention programmes;
  • Relationship counselling;
  • Drug rehabilitation programmes;
  • Anger management classes;
  • Mentoring.

KCPOs can be sought for any individual aged 12 upwards. The aim is to prevent the most at- risk or vulnerable individuals from becoming involved in knife possession and knife crime. It is the intention that KCPOs issued to under 18s should be subject to more scrutiny than those issued to adults (for example, through more regular reviews) and will be subject to consultation with youth offending teams.

7. If a Child is Suffering or Likely to Suffer Significant Harm

Any agency or practitioner who has concerns that a child may be at risk of harm as a consequence of gang activity or child criminal exploitation should contact Doncaster Children's Services Trust Service or the Police Force for the area in which the child is currently located.

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

All agencies and the child's parents / caregivers need to consider how they can help protect and reduce the risk to the child. It is likely that involvement in crime is lucrative for the child and that they are fearful and/or protective of their exploiters. It is therefore unlikely that they will engage in interventions that aim to reduce their involvement. A plan which mostly relies on the engagement of the child will not be robust enough to keep them safe.

Gang Injunctions are a civil tool that allows the Police or a local authority to apply to the County Court, High Court or Youth Court for an injunction against an individual to prevent gang-related violence and gang-related drug dealing. By imposing a range of prohibitions and requirements on the respondent a Gang Injunction aims:

  • To prevent the respondent from engaging in, or encouraging or assisting, gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing activity; and/or
  • To protect the respondent from gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing activity.

Over the medium and longer term, Gang Injunctions aim to break down violent gang culture, prevent the violent behaviour of gang members from escalating and engage gang members in positive activities to help them leave the gang. Gang Injunctions can also be used to help protect people, in particular children, from being drawn further into more serious activity.

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.

Anyone seeking to apply for an injunction must have evidence that the respondent has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence or gang-related drug dealing; and will need to be able to prove this on the balance of probabilities at court. Applicants will also need to convince the court that the Gang Injunction is necessary to prevent the respondent from being involved in gang-related violence and gang-related drug dealing.

Local children's services who have legal responsibilities for safeguarding and child protection should always be involved in discussions regarding a potential Gang Injunction for a 14 to 17 year old and to advise what action it would be appropriate to take to ensure the safety of the young person and to protect him or her from significant harm. For further information please see Statutory Guidance: Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence and Gang-Related Drug Dealing (Home Office, May 2016).

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.

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.

8. Siblings and Other Children and Young People at Risk

Siblings and friends of those involved in gang activity may also be at risk. For example, violence can occur as an act of revenge, which may target family members or friends. This may place other children or young people at risk of harm. You should not, therefore under-estimate the need to consider their protection as well.

If you think the situation is an emergency, do not delay - telephone 999.