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Opportunities to stop girls drifting into gangs are being missed, study finds

Girls and young women with links to gangs are among the most at risk group of children in our communities. Yet through effective early intervention, involving both children's services and adult social care, girls at risk of getting involved in gangs can be supported to build better lives. And when they do get involved in gangs, it is vital that efforts to help them leave are tailored to the needs of girls and young women.

Centre for Mental Health used anonymised data about the health and wellbeing of more than 8,000 young people screened as part of a youth point of arrest health initiative between August 2011 and November 2012 to identify the particular needs of girls involved in gang activity.

Those entering the youth justice system were screened for 28 different risk factors and health issues on arrest, including histories of poor mental health, poor parental mental health, family conflict, homelessness and victimisation. On average, young women involved with gangs had more than twice as many vulnerabilities as the other girls screened.

Compared with other girls entering the justice system, girls who were linked to gangs were five times more likely to have a parent in prison, three times more likely to have a parent with substance misuse or mental health difficulties, four times more likely to be bullied or have a history of running away, and three times more likely to have histories of neglect and physical and sexual abuse. They were also five times more likely to have been involved in risky sexual activity.

Importantly, girls involved in gangs were three times more likely to have had early mental health problems– particularly behavioural difficulties – often from a young age.
These data have major implications for both children's services and adult social care. Girls with multiple risk factors for gang activity need to be protected through effective early intervention to reduce abuse, neglect and poor mental health.

Adult social care workers may often be well placed to identify families whose children are at risk of gang involvement: for example, where parents have mental health conditions, difficulties with drugs or alcohol, who live in insecure housing or have a history of imprisonment.

Children's services may also be able to identify girls who face a significant risk of later gang involvement. Some of these girls were in care or on child protection plans. Many more were affected by neglect, family conflict and maltreatment.

Yet the data in our study suggested that earlier opportunities were often missed to stop girls drifting into gangs. Although most of these girls were attending school, many were underperforming and had a history of poor behaviour, aggression and running away.

We found that very often parents ask for help but get no response until the situation gets much worse. There are important opportunities for youth and children's services to engage these vulnerable young women in schools, when they are excluded, and through outreach approaches in high-risk communities.

Encouragingly, however, we found that the vast majority of girls involved in gangs responded to offers of support, with nine out of 10 keeping in touch with the services they were offered. But, as girls characteristically join gangs for different reasons to those that apply to boys, so they need different exit routes. For example, whereas low self-esteem in boys reduces their chances of joining a gang, girls with low self-esteem face a greatly increased risk of gang involvement.

Girls need safe routes out with support that recognises their distinctive needs. This is likely to include easy access to trauma services to address histories of victimisation, which are all too common, and safe accommodation. Mentors can support positive peer relationships to help young women exit gangs. Young women with past histories of gang involvement and crime could be "skilled up" to work with others and offer positive female role models.

Finally, there are a number of programmes with proven records of turning around the lives of young people in crisis and with entrenched behavioural difficulties. We need more consistent commissioning of intensive and cost effective programmes such as family therapy, intensive fostering and multisystemic therapy.

Neither children's services nor adult social care can achieve these changes on their own. But they can form an important link by offering effective support to the most vulnerable adults and children and by working in partnership with schools, health, youth and voluntary sector services, police and others to make every contact count.

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