Knife crime and young women
When I applied for a Fellowship in 2017 the issue of girls and gangs wasn’t really in the mainstream news. Back then the focus was primarily on boys, and people were not really talking about vulnerable young girls in association with gangs. But girls play many different roles and get involved because they are related to gang members, or through friendships or relationships. Their involvement in gang activity can sometimes be the result of coercion and control and may show the same patterns of behaviour that we see in domestic abuse. But no one was really talking about this at the time.
"If you look at gangs, how they groom and keep loyalty, it is very similar to an abusive relationship."
I was a Councillor in Southwark when I applied. It was an area that was having to deal with an increase in young people involved in youth violence, in knife crime, and also a Borough with high rates of reported domestic abuse. In fact, while the narrative around knife crime is that it is youth violence, a large percentage is actually related to domestic abuse. After witnessing a knife crime attack in a park on a Sunday afternoon, I was motivated to take action and see what we were doing in the borough to tackle these issues.
One thing I found from my research was that youth violence intervention programmes were often about stopping people from offending, from being involved in drug dealing, or from carrying a knife - and that was the metric of success that the programmes was judged on. Because of this, there was not enough time (or funding) to focus on the attitudes and behaviours that were underlying those actions. So whilst it might be successful in getting a boy to stop carrying a knife, if the programme does not address the unhealthy and sometimes abusive attitudes he may have towards women, we could see him back in the criminal justice system as an adult - as a perpetrator of violence towards women. He could end up continuing to victimise the people around him, harming his community, those that he loves and, ultimately, himself.
If you look at gangs, how they groom one another and keep loyalty in a gang, it is very similar to an abusive relationship – in fact, it is a form of abusive relationship. There is manipulation, there are rewards, and there are punishments if you don’t do the right thing. The gang controls every aspect of your life. They also make you feel like you’re being watched all the time. These are all things that women who are in abusive relationships experience. So, if that is how a young person has been socialised from a young age, because they have been involved in a gang, then that kind of behaviour has the potential to manifest itself in future personal relationships.
I really wanted to see what people were doing to address those behaviours in young men involved with gangs and to identify these girls and work with them to keep them safe. I thought - I’ll go abroad and see what other countries are doing about it.
On my Churchill Fellowship, I went to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and New Orleans. These cities had similar gangs to the UK: street-based, local and associated with a block, area or postcode. If you asked someone in the UK to name a gang, they would likely name the Bloods, Crips or MS-13, which are American: many would struggle to name a UK one.
One of the American organisations I thought was brilliant was called Safe Streets, in Baltimore. They had a public health approach to tackling community violence. One of the things that was really good was that they didn’t put a limit on how long they would engage with someone. Their door was always open. It wasn’t a six-week programme or ten sessions. They didn’t say - ‘If you don’t turn up for two weeks in a row, then you’re no longer on this course.’ They really understood that if you want to engage with young people, you have to understand that things go on in their life which mean they’re not able to engage all the time, and it’s a slow process.
Safe Streets had a really high success rates. They worked with all the major hospitals, with the communities, hired ex-gang members who still lived in those communities - so they had an authority and sway, in a way that I don’t really think we have in the UK. A lot of our big charities aren’t always great at hiring people from the local communities: it is well known that we hire people who are like us, so until people from the communities are represented in senior positions, this is likely to continue to be the case. But when you have really authentic and credible people, who are able to engage with locals because they might bump into them while they’re going to the shop to get some groceries, it’s not just like they’re coming in, working with someone and then leaving. They’re coming in, working with someone and then at the end of the day they are going round the corner into their own homes, properly embedded in the community.
In a call with the Director of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, we discussed the importance of working with women and girls. The city saw a 60:40 split between males and females accessing their gang intervention and prevention services. I doubt any city or borough in the UK has figures near that. They achieved this by having female outreach workers and training all outreach workers in domestic abuse. This means they understood the dynamics of what may be happening in the young person’s family life, and also means they were able to pick up on any abusive behaviours they observed. They actively understood the link between being involved in crime or being a victim of crime, and domestic abuse – this is crucial as a lot of young offenders in the UK come from households where domestic abuse and child abuse are prevalent. It’s important to understand how experience of domestic abuse impacts on a young person’s mental health and behaviours.
There was one judge in Baltimore, Judge Videtta A. Brown, who had written a paper on women in abusive relationships with gang members. I didn’t know about his paper until I got over there and met with a prosecutor in a different state who had done some research and brought it to my attention. I emailed Judge Brown while I was Baltimore and she was kind enough to meet with me. It really was doors opening doors opening doors. She was brilliant. She gave me some really good context around what it was like as a judge, trying to rule in cases and trying to protect young women who were involved with gang members.
Some of the stories she came out with, around the shaming and the targeting that goes on in a community once you have split up with a gang member, were sad but believable. Not just victimisation from their partner and the gang, but also the criminalisation of young women who are associated with gang members, and how if they didn’t talk or weren’t co-operative with police, then they could potentially be held liable for the crimes of their partner. This is especially true when they become accessories to crime, such as hiding a weapon for their boyfriend. They may do this because of coercion, but also because they are in love with their partner and want to help them. The perception is that it is not as much of a big deal, because they are not physically hurting anyone by storing a weapon: but they are still committing a criminal offence and, if they get caught, they can end up in prison.
Another judge, Judge Lori Dumas, had similar experiences when she was sitting in the young persons court in Philadelphia. As a result of that, she had championed a specialist court that worked with vulnerable young boys and girls who were potentially involved in crime as a result of sex trafficking. If we think about slavery and human trafficking, we don’t necessarily think about the street gangs that operate in cities. However, a lot of the issues around youth violence actually coincide with issues around human trafficking and slavery, because the young people are forced into crimes such as drug-making or sexual exploitation.
Judge Dumas was able to get a specialist court set up, which understood that young people might be committing crimes but that this was a result of trauma they had been through. The court worked with them, got them enrolled in education, got them housing and support. If the young people engaged, then they didn’t go through the criminal justice process, and the focus was on the wellbeing of that person and trying to get them on the right path, rather than criminalising them.
Since coming back, I have been busy. I launched my report at the Greater London Assembly with the Deputy Mayor for Police and Crime. About 30 people involved in criminal justice and domestic abuse attended. Since then I’ve been asked to speak about my findings, I have an advisory position researching the state of the rights of girls in the UK. I’ve got London Assembly members onside who are trying to ensure that the issue of girls and gangs stays on the agenda there. And Sadiq Khan referenced the report in a Mayor’s Question Time. Conversations about gangs aren’t just about boys anymore, people are talking about girls and I am happy to be contributing towards that.
I want to see local authorities commissioning gang intervention services that are gender specific, targeted at supporting vulnerable young girls, because they are currently not supporting this cohort of young people. They need to think very strategically about how they can support the girls, because otherwise they are letting young people grow up with some really serious trauma that’s not being addressed. The boys will grow up without having the mental health support they need to address their trauma and the girls will grow up having witnessed or experienced trauma, holding responsibility for looking after these boys but without any support or resources. I really want them to be seen and listened to - because they haven’t been so far.
I applied for a Fellowship when I was 24, and I would absolutely encourage other young people to apply. I think often - when you’re young, you think that your ideas aren’t important; you think that there are people out there who are far more experienced, and they should be going for it. But actually, the fact that you’re young means that you bring a different perspective to the situation. I have been shown so much respect, no one has blinked an eyelid at my age and they have been excited to support me. Often we can underestimate ourselves. We worry that we can’t credentialise ourselves. But actually, people want to hear from us.
The Fellowship is a springboard and it’s absolutely brilliant that I’ve been able to do it at such a young age. This is the beginning of my career and I’ve already learnt so much in this one year. I’m only 25 - imagine what I can do next.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.
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