Rise in children involved in gangs is 'of real concern'
PUBLISHED: 16:30 03 January 2020
© Mark Earthy
More "vulnerable" children in Suffolk are at risk of becoming involved in gangs, new social services referral figures reveal.
There has been a 12% rise in referrals for kids affected by gangs in the county compared with last year, according to statistics by the Department for Education (DfE).
There was also a jump in referrals to social services in Suffolk for children impacted by alcohol misuse (9%), mental health (1.8%), sexual exploitation (9%), physical disability or illness (21%), or being a young carer (3%).
However, the total number of referrals fell from 6,202 last year to 5,720 this year, which Suffolk County Council described as "pleasing".
The local authority says it has invested a "significant amount of money and resource" in services to respond to the "growing problem" with gangs and the county lines drug trade.
Julia Winkless, chairwoman of the Ipswich and Suffolk branch of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said the statistics reflected what social workers are seeing on the ground, adding greater awareness of the issues of gangs and child sexual exploitation could in part explain the increases.
She said: "More people are identifying it and seeing it for what it is. Wherever vulnerable people are, people who take advantage of vulnerable people can find them. It's happening in rural parts of our county, which may not have as many services for them to be identified."
Referrals can be made from several different sources including schools, health services, individuals and the police.
Nationally, the DfE figures revealed a 27% rise in referrals for children affected by gangs.
There were 399,510 "children in need" at March 31 this year, according to the DfE, a slight decrease of 1% from 2018.
Sam Royston, director of policy and research at The Children's Society, said the significant increase in children at risk of gang involvement was of "real concern".
"We see through our frontline work the devastating impact upon children who are groomed and exploited to traffic drugs in county lines operations and the violence that goes with that.
"Yet years of funding cuts have left councils struggling to provide vital early support to at-risk children and their families, including those at risk of exploitation - meaning the challenges they are facing are more likely to escalate and put them in danger."
The Children's Society urged all political parties to "urgently" address the £3billion funding shortfall facing children's social care by 2025 and a plan for supporting councils to offer better early support.
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Ms Winkless added rises in factors like mental health and alcohol misuse often correlated with increased poverty.
She said the services were in place to address the issues, but they needed to be properly funded.
"Until there is a fundamental shift in policy at Government level to address the crisis of these issues we won't see change. Children are not falling to sexual exploitation for no reason. Address the reasons for these things and then we start to make progress."
What the government says about "children in need"
Previously, a government spokesman said: "We are working to strengthen families and tackle the causes of need - from mental health and addiction to domestic abuse. We are also providing an extra £1billion for local councils to deliver social care.
"We are also cracking down on exploitation of young people by criminal gangs and supporting councils in their duty to care for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, alongside providing more investment in mental health support."
What Suffolk County Council says about the figures
A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said: "Whilst there are areas we need to focus on, it is pleasing to see that the total referrals to social services are down for the fourth year running. The areas where referrals have increased reflect the national picture.
"As Ofsted confirmed in their visit earlier this year the county council has a strong early help service, a robust multi-agency safeguarding hub and works closely with its partners to ensure that all children's referrals are dealt with appropriately.
"However, we always remain vigilant to the ever-changing issues for children and families in Suffolk, for instance alongside our partners we are investing in mental health services to combat the increasing demand.
"This includes services based in schools to make access easier for children and a new online counselling service."
- The figures in relation to alcohol misuse, mental health and physical disability or illness include concerns about the child, parent or carer or another person in the household.