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What role can the social sector play in tackling youth crime?

By Karen Scanlon 22 July 2019 4 minute read

Public attention is currently focused on reducing the rise in youth knife crime, youth radicalisation and child exploitation across towns and cities in England (UK). But are we listening to the voices of those working within and alongside the social sector about what is needed in preventing, addressing and reducing youth crime?

NPC recently convened people from the social sector, statutory services and funders to share their insight into what the sector is doing and where change is needed. The discussion was wide ranging but with the current crisis, we felt it is most valuable to share what the youth sector is doing to stop it.

Being there for young people

The social sector has long been a strong advocate for taking an ‘asset-based’ approach to young people at risk of/or involved in crime, and not simply seeing young people as either a potential ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’. Youth charities (big and small) see themselves as agents for change within communities and among young people. They play an important role in advocating on behalf of young people as well as empowering them to have a stronger voice.

Hannah Hughes described the work of her employer, The Phase Trust—a youth organisation based in the West Midlands, who have been using Youth Investment Funding to develop and increase their open access and detached (outreach) youth work provision with some of the most marginalised, disadvantaged and disengaged young people in towns and villages bordering Birmingham. Many of whom are at known to be at risk of being exploited by organised criminal gangs.

By providing an ongoing presence within these communities Phase Trust have developed trusted relationships with these young people, who they are able to support on a range of different issues (e.g. substance misuse, familial problems, and school issues) and offer support to be more self-aware in the decisions and actions they take.

The Phase Trust initially set up early preventative youth crime work in schools, but they quickly had to move on to addressing child criminal exploitation work due to the high number of young people (as young as 10-12 years old) who are at known to be at risk of being exploited by adults and at times their own peers.

This led them to working on a ‘navigate’ programme with Barnardo’s and CHADD that is primarily focused on addressing child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation.

Hannah said: ‘We (Phase Trust) are in it for the long-game…. remember they are children. They are not always actively making the choice to be involved in crime. It is their experiences and their environment that has led them to this path. We need to help them find their way to a different path.’

One example she gave was of a young person seeking her help following an incident involving a rival gang from a neighbouring town. ‘Where can we go when you are not here, so you can keep us safe?’.

Sarah Hegarty described the Children’s societies 1-2-1 and group services which support young people who have been involved in, or are at risk of, criminal exploitation or child sexual exploitation or have come into contact with their ‘missing service’.

Changing how we think of young people

The charity has in recent years re-designed its service delivery models for young people so that they use more ‘gender informed’ approaches and ‘trauma influenced’ approaches. The charity had observed over time that for the majority of young people who had been perpetrators of youth crime activity, they had experienced extreme adverse experiences in early childhood (e.g. exposure to domestic violence; grief; trauma) without any access to therapeutic services.

The Children’s Society believe that a systems change approach is needed, so that a holistic multi-sector approach is taken to addressing the ‘root causes’ of youth crime. They call for different agencies to have integrated systems to transfer information across services and create more robust child safeguarding processes, so that early intervention work with children and families is delivered when it is most needed.

These examples illustrate the consensus that developed among our panel members and audience, about how the social sector currently offers young people a way out of youth crime by:

  • Providing somewhere safe to go where they can engage in positive enjoyable activities.
  • Providing opportunities to develop positive trusted and respected relationships with adults and other young people.
  • Providing opportunities to make positive life choices.
  • Developing personal, social and emotional development skills and broad life skills.
  • Challenging negative stereotypes and discrimination (e.g racial, religious, sexual orientation stereotypes).

 Policy and practice

Young people have been short-changed by policy makers, funders, education providers and social sector providers alike. In the vacuum caused by austerity, they have been exposed to increasing risk of involvement in violence and crime. As we approach the school summer holiday period, many families and young people will be reliant on social sector providers to not only offer enjoyable activities for young people to engage in that ‘keep them out of trouble’, but also basic human needs such as food (holiday hunger), shelter and safety.

We need interventions like those described above to develop community engagement and cohesion and create the conditions to develop young people’s positive long-term relationships with trusted adults and other young people. They let young people broaden their horizons, develop positive behaviours, and raise their hopes and aspirations.

But this change within a young person is not created over a 6-week summer break. Instead it requires sustained long-term involvement from social sector providers and statutory agencies in young people’s lives, in partnership with their family and communities, to help guide and support them in making positive life choices and to learn from their mistakes. This in turn requires funding that recognises the need for flexibility in this work and supports core costs.


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