At the start of a new financial year, I realise that five years ago this summer the Jay Report was published and CSE – child sexual exploitation – entered our consciousness and our vocabulary. We learnt how children were groomed for sexual purposes by unscrupulous men.
Now we are learning about CCE – child criminal exploitation – the grooming of the young for criminal rather than sexual purposes. It’s how gangs operate. It also partly explains why there have been many incidents involving knives and stabbings in some parts of the country.
There was a time when gangs were interested in controlling a few streets of the city. This was their ‘turf’. They advertised it by marking buildings with their particular sign. Their graffiti was everywhere and they were aggressive towards those that entered their patch.
But criminal gangs now no longer advertise their presence. They keep a low profile because they are not interested in territory, but money. Money they can make by exploiting a lucrative drugs market.
They don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They would prefer for the authorities not to know about them. Which is where the young people come in.
The gangs want to use children who are ‘clean skins’ – not known to the authorities, especially the police. They recruit vulnerable young people into the gang for the purposes of taking drugs around, often out of urban centres to towns and villages elsewhere – county lines.
What the young people get out of this is partly rewards – cash and drugs for their own use. But more particularly its membership of the gang itself.
The gang is like an alternative family – a family that offers the affection and support they may not be getting from home or anywhere else. Once a young person is in the gang they start to behave in the way people often do within families. So they can be fiercely loyal and protective.
And this is where the knives come in. Families fall out and fight, mostly with verbal abuse and the occasional brawl. But sometimes revenge becomes more violent. Among gangs that can lead to weapons.
If we are to overcome knife crimes we need to target and disrupt the gangs. But we also need alternative ‘families’ – boxing and football clubs and youth services – who will teach young people different patterns of behaviour – like mutual respect and tolerance.