Joining a gang can change a child’s direction in life for ever
We all want the best for our children, not just in their lives at home and in school, but we hope they develop good friendships as they grow up. Friendships which may last a lifetime, and keep them happy when we’re not around.
But what happens when a young person makes a friend who isn’t trying to support them? Someone who isn’t interested in their happiness, safety or wellbeing. Someone who they consider a friend, but who only wants to exert power over them, or force them down a path which might not be the one you choose for them.
Children and young people becoming involved in gangs is nothing new. They might be attracted towards the gang by peer pressure, pursuing a feeling of belonging or on the promise of gifts or rewards. By becoming involved with these groups, they might also be threatened into behaviour they are not comfortable with.
Some things have never changed, and gang behaviour can range from wandering the streets, hanging around in public areas and being a general, unpleasant nuisance. But in recent years, the possibilities have become so much worse.
Across the country, children and young people have increasingly become targets of cross-border, or ‘county lines’ gangs in recent years. You’ve probably seen coverage of these gangs in the news, and heard how leaders manipulate children into committing crimes they are not prepared to carry out themselves.
Being part of a gang can make children and young people feel accepted by their peers, or part of a family, but can leave them exposed to abuse and exploitation, potentially ending up with them being physically hurt or arrested and possibly even imprisoned.
Either of these outcomes will change the direction of their lives forever, and our Childline counsellors regularly hear from young people who have found themselves involved in similar situations. Often, they’re scared and don’t know how to escape the situation they’re in.
One young girl told Childline: “I joined a gang so I would stop being bullied, but some of the things other gang members do has started to really bother me.
“They say really offensive things to people and steal stuff. I don’t know who I can talk to. I’m worried. I want to get out.”
Young people involved in ‘county lines’ are often coerced into taking huge risks moving drugs and weapons for the benefit of others, and can face serious punishments and repercussions if caught.
We must be clear that young people who are criminally exploited are victims of child trafficking, and need access to appropriate support to ensure their safety.
A teenage boy who phoned Childline told our counsellors: “I’ve thought about leaving, but I realised it isn’t that simple and I think I’d miss it because being in a gang is like being in a family.
“We look out for each other and are respected by people – I don’t know if I’d cope if things weren’t like that for me anymore.”
If you notice your child acting unusually, becoming secretive or refusing to engage, or in possession of money, clothes, phones or other items you did not buy them, this could be a sign they are being groomed – not necessarily for sexual abuse, but by those who would use them for potentially dangerous or criminal behaviour.
We know that children in this situation are often too scared to seek the help they need, but Childline is there 24/7 for support and advice on 0800 1111, and adults worried about a child’s welfare can call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.