Reframing blame: what do we need to understand about child exploitation to safeguard young people?

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We’re probably all aware that serious youth violence – crimes where homicide and knife and gun crime play a key role – is a growing issue and this year it has been added to Keeping children safe in education (KCSIE) as a specific safeguarding concern for educators. Over the last few years, there’s been regular news coverage about knife attacks perpetrated by young people on young people, and research by the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee reports an increase in the number of victims of serious youth violence.

So what leads young people to become involved in serious violence? The Children’s Society work with many children who are groomed and exploited by organised gangs to commit crimes. They say that even if their activity appears to be consensual, no child can consent to their own exploitation. To support and protect young people, we need to look behind their criminal actions and behaviour, understand how exploitation works and spot the warning signs that a child is at risk of being exploited.

Here, Dawn Jotham, our pastoral care specialist, identifies the four key recruitment tactics employed by organised crime groups, and the warning signs that you should look out for to help protect your students from this growing threat.


According to Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, targeting occurs when a young person has been identified as a potential recruit and that “while children in care or growing up in poverty are often targeted, these perpetrators prey upon any sign of vulnerability.” This often involves careful observation, assessing vulnerabilities and developing trust. Victims are befriended by older teens or adults and often refer to feeling a sense of belonging and power over other people. It’s a potent mix of emotions that’s difficult for many teens to disrupt.

Warning signs:

  • Secretive behaviour about their whereabouts.
  • Constant talk or praise about another young person.


In the experience stage victims are reeled in through an appealing lifestyle. Relationships are cultivated through gift giving – in some cases gifting weapons, offering protection and fostering a sense of belonging. It’s a process of buying the victim’s loyalty in order to bend to their will.

Warning signs:

  • Dropping out of extra-curricular activities.
  • Adopting a new nickname.
  • Unexplained gifts or new possessions.


When young people are hooked they associate a sense of pride with their gang. They’re given positions of more responsibility and this cements their sense of importance and respect. Victims also expand their criminal involvement as they begin to recruit others to join the gang and buy into the lifestyle. This type of recruitment can be exhibited through minor offences, such as using peer pressure to encourage a victim to smoke marijuana, but this can quickly escalate to more serious activity.

Warning signs:

  • Possessing large amounts of money or drugs.
  • Breaking ties with old friends and spending time with only one group of people.


In the trapped stage victims feel dependent on their gang for survival. This could be for money or food, or they may have a drug dependency, and depending on the extent of their involvement with the gang, victims may feel trapped and isolated if threats of blackmail and retribution are used. Threats of physical violence such as stabbings, rape and torture are not uncommon.

Warning signs:

  • Being scared when entering certain areas.
  • Spending considerable amounts of time in towns or cities many miles from their home.

As with many of the challenges facing young people, context is key, and where possible, we should adopt a contextual safeguarding approach. Keeping an eye out for these warning signs will help us to spot young people that need support and protection so that we can intervene at an earlier stage, but they are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, and the location and culture of a community must also be taken into consideration. We can also help to create a safer culture around serious youth violence, by challenging the normalisation of violence, reducing victim-blaming language and building positive relationships that encourage a healthy dialogue between students and teachers.

Learn more about exploitation and its links to serious violence with our online training course Serious Youth Violence written in partnership with The Children’s Society.

Find out more and request a free copy today.

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