Gangs and young people: What a foster carer needs to know
If you watch the news regularly, you could be forgiven for thinking every young person in London is either in a gang or at risk of joining one at any moment.
Although gang affiliation isn’t as prevalent as the impression the news might give you, sadly, gangs do exist in the capital and certain groups of young people are more vulnerable to being exploited by them.
As a foster carer, you may have legitimate concerns that a young person in your care may be attracted to, or may become involved in, gang activity. In this article we hope to answer a few of the questions you might have about young people in foster care and gangs.
What exactly is a gang?
That’s not a straightforward question to answer but a definition sometimes used is “a durable, street-oriented youth group that engages in offending behaviour”.
How prevalent is gang activity among young people?
In 2019 the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England tried to estimate gang affiliation among 10- to 15-year-olds.
Through a survey of 4000 young people they found 0.7 per cent considered themselves to be part of a gang. Based on that, they estimated 27,000 young people were involved in gangs across all of England.
If that estimate sounds high, you might be reassured to note the Commissioner’s report found the much lower figure of 6560 young people who were actually known by youth offending teams and Children’s Services to be involved in gangs.
The trouble with all this data is that actual gang membership is a rubbery concept. Gangs and their members may not be formalised, or may not be understood to be “gangs” by the young people involved. They may just think of them as friendship groups.
Why do young people join gangs?
We asked this question of a former gang member who now works with young people to help them avoid getting involved with gangs. Here’s what he said:
“No one ever wants to join a gang. The gang is never portrayed as a gang. It’s portrayed as a fraternity, if you want to call it that. It’s a friendship group: ‘we’re all here, and we have a mission of getting money or getting the popular girls, the cars’ and stuff like that. It’s never portrayed as a gang. It’s just hanging out. Then certain pressures are added once you’re in that circle. There’s a code of conduct that you have to abide by.
“They entice you with little things, often money. They probably know what’s going on at home. They’re smart in the way they work because they maneuver themselves and position themselves to be able to have that conversation with you so they can influence you. It’s really very strategic.
“When you look at it, a gang is a business. They need to keep the gang strong and to keep a turnover coming in. To keep having a turnover, you need a workforce, and that’s the new recruits.”
What are some of the risk factors for becoming part of gangs?
There are lots of different factors that might lead to a young person getting involved in gang activity. Here are reasons young people may become involved in gangs, from the NSPCC:
- Peer pressure and wanting to fit in with their friends
- They feel respected and important
- They want to feel protected from other gangs, or bullies
- They want to make money, and are promised rewards
- They want to gain status and feel powerful
- They’ve been excluded from school and feel they don’t have a future.
A study by Public Health England, which looked at gang affiliation and young people and mental health, listed the following risk factors for gang affiliation:
- Adverse childhood experiences (trauma)
- Attachment insecurity and poor caregiver bonds
- Conduct disorders (which they defined as “diagnosed mental health disorders characterised by persistent antisocial, aggressive or defiant behaviour”)
- Social exclusion (a lack of participation in mainstream social, cultural, economic and political activity), and
- Disadvantaged neighbourhood environments.
What are the warning signs a young person may be involved in gang activity?
The NSPCC website has a long list of potential warning signs to look out for. You can find the full list here. Below are a few common signs:
- Frequently being absent from school or doing badly in school
- Going missing from home, staying out late and travelling for unexplained reasons
- In a relationship, or hanging out, with someone older than themselves
- Being angry, aggressive or violent
- Being isolated or withdrawn
- Having unexplained money and buying new things.
Our gangs expert also suggested foster carers look out for the following warning signs:
- Having unexplained money
- Using new language, terminology or slang you haven’t heard before
- Adopting new mannerisms or gestures
- Changing the style of clothes they wear, or the way they wear their clothes, or suddenly being very aware of the latest shoes or clothing releases when that’s not something they cared about before
- Seeming to always be alert whenever you’re out in public (for example, paying attention to who is driving past in certain vehicles or on mopeds, or refusing to sit with their back to the door in a cafe)
- Listening to new kinds of music, particularly drill music (note: many people love drill music and are not in gangs, but drill music is particularly popular with gangs).
The Metropolitan Police also has a list of things to look out for, here.
What should I do if I think a young person in my care is getting involved in a gang?
If you believe a young person in your care is involved, or is in danger of becoming involved, in gang activity, there are several steps you can take. The NSPCC website recommends the following:
- Talk to them about it
- Be aware of their whereabouts
- Ask for help to support the young person
- Encourage a change.
What could a therapeutic approach to helping a young person look like?
This is very much a general guide, but a therapeutic approach to gang affiliation of a young person in foster care might look like this:
- Start with curiosity: If you see worrying behaviour patterns, use your curiosity to find out more and then think about possible ways forward before approaching the young person.
- Be non-blaming: When you talk to the young person, listen to them and try to understand, without blaming.
- Understand the connection: Try to understand what it is the young person is getting out of their association with the gang. What are they looking for from it?
- Use empathy: Empathy allows you to hear and see a lot of things that will help you look through the behaviour and find out what is really going on for your young person.
- Consider safety: Think about how you are showing that you are keeping the young person safe, and that home is a safe space.
- Manage your expectations: Manage your own expectations around what change looks like for the young person. Change may take a long time to happen. If you’re anxious about the risks and worries of gangs, you’re going to project that on the young person, and that might be counterproductive.
As an independent therapeutic foster care agency, Lika can provide any of our foster carers who needs it (or wants it) with specific training around how to approach gang affiliation with young people.
Additionally, our 24/7 support line is available whenever our carers need help or advice – so our carers will never feel they’re left alone to handle a situation like this.
Find out more about becoming a foster carer in London
Being a foster carer is a role like no other. Successful foster care requires an excellent support network and team around the placement.
Lika is an innovative agency that uses systemic family therapy approaches as a model to guide everything we do.
If you’re interested to know more, give our team a call on 0208 667 2111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lika recruits foster carers in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.