Violent and gang-related crime are ongoing issues in the United Kingdom, with a 19% rise in violent crime recorded by police in England and Wales in the 12 months to September 2018. Gang crime is particularly prominent in London, with 29% of people in each of the boroughs of Haringey and Tower Hamlets perceiving gangs as a significant problem in their area. For social workers dealing with vulnerable people and their social networks, gang activity is all too real – but what can be done to help address it?
Understanding the issue
The first step to helping tackle gang crime is gaining a deeper understanding of the issue, and how it impacts vulnerable people. Negative gang activity includes violence and weapons, drugs and sexual exploitation, with knife crime a particularly prominent threat. Males are most at risk, making up 90% of knife crime offenders in 2017, and young people are becoming more susceptible to joining gangs and participating in gang crime. This is especially important for social workers dealing with children and families to consider.
We know that more young people are being exposed to and joining gangs, and while there is no one definite reason why people turn to gang activity, there are some common signs to watch out for if you’re concerned one of your clients might become involved in gang crime. These include community disconnect, low self-esteem and poor self-identity, a lack of role models and a desire to belong to something. Those who are not in education, employment or training, as well as people who have been exposed to violent and criminal activity as children, can also be more at risk of turning to gangs. Academically troubled pupils and those with special educational needs make up a significant proportion of those who carry out knife crime offences, and are most at risk of being targeted by gang recruiters.
By understanding why someone might be attracted to a gang, you are better equipped to empathise with them and intervene early.
How you can help
Addressing the issue of gang crime is a multi-agency issue. While social workers and social carers can help to look out for gang activity and attempt to steer clients away from a life of crime, they are just one piece of a larger puzzle when it comes to safeguarding people at risk of gang-related harm. The Government’s Ending Gang and Youth Violence programme, which began in 2011, emphasised the importance of intervening as early as possible, particularly when it comes to helping to stop young people from becoming involved in gang activity. It revealed that strong local leadership is crucial in ensuring gang issues are addressed, with multi-agency collaboration and task groups key to tackling this issue.
Social workers can help in various ways. One of the most beneficial is understanding what people are looking for and getting out of gang activity, and then trying to find meaningful alternatives for this. For many, gangs make them feel safe, included and like they belong. Social workers who can suggest alternate ways for people to realise these feelings – such as sports teams, education opportunities, community groups and hobbies - may go some way in reducing gang crime.
Some of the most effective approaches in preventing gang involvement and youth violence include skills-based and family-focused programmes, according to a 2015 paper released by the Early Intervention Foundation and the Home Office. Home visits and parent training are proven intervention strategies, while mentoring and community engagement are also promising, but have less robust evidence of success. It’s clear that gang activity is a community and society issue, which must be addressed in a more holistic way than simply on a one-to-one basis between a vulnerable person and social worker. It’s also important to remember that social workers must act in a way that keeps themselves safe.
Help make communities safer as a social worker
Social workers play a vital role in our society, whether that’s assisting people to find alternatives to gang life or supporting families as they transition through difficult situations. If you’re passionate about helping people and making a difference, this career path can help you fulfil your goals. Take a look at our latest social work jobs or read more of our blogs here.