Preventing criminal exploitation: Action for Children

Serious and organised crime is crime “committed by people who have worked together for an extended period of time to plan, coordinate and conduct [it]”. According to the Home Office’s Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, it is one of the UK’s main national security threats, in that it affects more people more often than any other threat, and leads to more deaths than all other threats combined. It also costs the UK around £37 billion each year.

Serious and organised crime can include drug dealing, money laundering, cybercrime, use of weapons, violence, and human trafficking. It also often involves the criminal exploitation of children and young people. Government policy recognises this, and aims to treat young people involved in serious and organised crime as victims of exploitation rather than labelling them as criminals, offenders or perpetrators.

For young people at risk of being in this position, early intervention is key to preventing exploitation. Through National Lottery funding, Action for Children runs the Serious Organised Crime Early Intervention Service (SOCEIS), supporting children and young people aged 11-18 who are at risk of, or coerced into, serious and organised crime. The project helps to divert them away from pathways that could otherwise lead to career criminality.

This case study explores the background to the project, how it has expanded through National Lottery Community Fund support, how it identifies and supports young people, its use of peer mentors and lived experience to provide relatable role models, and its wider policy goals for the future.

Serious Organised Crime Early Intervention Service in numbers

The SOCEIS project operates in five locations across the UK: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle, and Cardiff. The project began in Glasgow in 2012, and was supported by a £460,000 National Lottery Community Fund grant in 2018. In 2019, a further grant of £4.6 million allowed it to expand to the other locations. The figures in the boxes below are taken from Glasgow only, as the project is at an earlier stage elsewhere. The data is drawn from an unpublished social return on investment analysis, conducted by Research Scotland.

Inception and expansion

“SOCEIS began as a discussion between Action for Children and Police Scotland,” says Action for Children Chief Executive Paul Carberry. “The police identified that there was a cohort of young people that services were failing to divert away from organised crime, and that it was very difficult to get them out of that involvement once it started. The young people were known to social workers, but weren’t engaging with statutory services.”

In response to this, Action for Children ran a small pilot project with a group of young people in Glasgow who were known to be involved in serious and organised crime. “What we quickly learned with our understanding of criminal exploitation,” explains Paul, “was that to even begin to address the needs of that cohort, we needed to gain their trust, and so we needed staff who understood the local area, the issues, and who the organised criminals were.”

In order to build that trust, the organisation started working through peer mentors with relevant lived experience of crime. “Back in 2012, that was quite a radical thing to do,” says Paul. “Incorporating lived experience has become more normalised, but at the time it was a big step for Police Scotland to share sensitive information about organised crime with a voluntary and community sector organisation, which employs people with a history of offending.”

This approach saw the project grow and develop in Glasgow, leading to an expansion into Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle, and Cardiff.

“What we’ve learned through working in different places is that services in a particular area may not realise the full extent a local issue with organised crime,” explains National Manager Sharon MacIver. “But after the first year – once people really start to focus on it and see how much of it is hidden – they become aware of how much harm young people are coming to.”

A major part of this is helping local services to recognise offending and violence as warning signs of exploitation, rather than just as criminality. “One of the chief pieces of learning, for agencies and for communities, has been that awareness of what exploitation is,” says Sharon.

“It’s challenging, because if you’re involved in organised crime and you’re being exploited, then you’re a victim while also committing illegal acts. We have to negotiate that to help services understand that young people in that position aren’t just bad kids – often the choice they have is either to deal drugs, say, or see themselves or their families come to harm.”

On top of this, Action for Children has found marked differences in the different cities where the project operates. “Looking across our different sites, we see that some are dominated by family crime groups, and that meant we had a clear understanding there of who was exploiting young people,” says Sharon.

“But others are completely different; we’ve seen a lot of county lines activity in some places, which leads to a dispersed scene with random dealers and activity across a city. That makes it much harder to pinpoint who is behind the exploitation. And in other places, we started out seeing a lot of theft, but lower levels of violence alongside that. However, that has increased recently through gang activity – recognising there is a gang problem has helped us and our partner services understand the local crime scene in those locations."

Initial support for young people

SOCEIS support is offered through a combination of intensive one-to-one sessions, group sessions, risk reduction approaches, peer mentoring, education, training, employment opportunities, and diversionary activities. The focus is on building relationships with participants to move them towards positive, non-criminal pathways.

This process starts with identifying young people who are at risk of exploitation or might otherwise benefit from the service. This means partnerships are extremely important, as local services have in-depth knowledge of communities and individuals in their areas.

“The service could not function without the support of our partners,” says Sharon. Predominantly, these are police, social work and youth justice services, who will identify young people with vulnerabilities that could lead to exploitation, or who are already actively being exploited.

Partners provide Action for Children with background and details about the young people they refer, including their specific vulnerabilities, and the organisation then builds an intervention plan around that information.

“The plan will be intensive, supported by peer mentors alongside professional key workers and practitioners,” explains Sharon. “It will include targeted one-to-one work around addressing the young person’s specific vulnerabilities, some family support, diversionary activities to get them engaged, and opportunities to enter education or training.”

Project staff monitor each young person’s progress over a year (on average), and look for signs of sustained positive changes. “This is important, as exploitation isn’t a one-off thing,” says Sharon. “It’s a process of grooming, so there’s a process we go through to undo that grooming. So even after a young person has moved away from serious and organised crime, we like there to be a period beyond that where we’re satisfied there’s no longer any exploitation.”

Throughout the process, support is dictated by each young person’s needs. “That’s one of our unique selling points,” says Sharon. “We’re persistent, but we’re not overpowering – we know that some young people might take three months just to get to a starting point, and we know the reasons for that. We know there will be times when they refuse to engage, and times when they really need us.”

For this reason, intervention starts slowly. Initial engagement might, for example, involve identifying that a young person’s family lives in poverty, so staff might help them to access grants or book and attend medical appointments. “That means we’re in touch with the parent or carer, so we know what’s going on day-to-day, but without making the young person feel like they’ve gone from no engagement with services to seeing someone five times a week,” says Sharon.

“As the relationship builds, we might see them four or five times in one week, but only once the next week. Things can be quite chaotic – one week they might have been arrested so we need to go to the police station to support them, or another week they might have become homeless so we need to help them find a new tenancy.”

At this stage, family support is also key. “There’s a tension between parents who want to keep their kids safe, and young people who feel they have a responsibility to go out and ‘work’ by dealing drugs, for example,” Sharon explains. “We try to negotiate a balance in that relationship, otherwise there’s a risk the parents might feel they can’t have them living in the family home anymore, and once that happens the risk for everything else increases tenfold.”

We’re persistent, but we’re not overpowering; we know there will be times when young people refuse to engage, and times when they really need us
Sharon MacIver, SOCEIS National Manager

Changing lives

Over time, these initial support approaches lead to an established relationship between SOCEIS staff and the young people they support. Each young person has an allocated key worker or peer mentor who monitors their progress and assesses their changing needs. They might meet once or twice a week for a coffee and talk about what they’re going through, or they might need to talk about unrelated things in order to get away from it for a while.

“That’s where our staff are particularly skilled – recognising what needs to happen when,” says Sharon. “Sometimes we need to provide a safe holding space, and other times a young person might be ready to start processing some of their trauma by talking about it. Often, that trauma is quite significant – they might have seen horrendous things happen to other people or friends, or they might have been threatened with those things themselves.”

These meetings also give staff a chance to identify risk factors. “A lot of the young people we work with carry weapons for their own safety, wear stab-proof vests because they don’t feel safe in certain areas, wear extra layers of clothing to conceal drugs, or carry empty bags for shoplifting,” Sharon explains.

“Noticing and understanding these things is key. For example, a young person might refuse to meet in a particular part of the city, which indicates an issue with travelling between home and that area. This is shared among professionals, so we can better protect and support them.”

Over time, SOCEIS staff look for signs that things are becoming more stable in young people’s lives. “We look at what the vulnerabilities are when they're referred and the reasons for their exploitation,” says Sharon. “And then, along the journey, we look for indications that those vulnerabilities are reducing and that they're building more resilience.”

The key marker is a reduction in offending, but, as Sharon explains, a lot the young people engaged by the project are able to avoid being caught by police. For that reason, staff also look at home behaviour, family relationships, and engagement with services, which can change quite dramatically.

Staff look to see these changes being sustained over a period of time, to make sure young people are not at risk of continuing to be exploited. During this time, they might be referred to employability support, education providers, boxing clubs, and other services that fit with their goals and interests.

“Levels of hope and optimism are also huge markers for us,” says Sharon. “Often, when young people first start working with us, they feel there’s no hope for a positive future and that there's no way out of organised crime once they’re in it. When we see that mindset shift, and they maybe start going to back to school or college, or find activities that meet their needs and aspirations in a different way, it’s a remarkable change.”

Peer mentor support

Throughout this entire process, peer mentors – people with lived experience of serious and organised crime – are a key part of the support offer. “So many of our young people tell us that their role model used to be someone in a gang, but now it’s their peer mentor,” says Sharon.

“Mentors can show young people that it’s possible to go from being involved in crime to having a job, money, designer clothes – all legitimately. There’s a sense of pride behind that which someone who hasn’t been through it themselves can’t really offer.”

This is reflected in how peer mentors work, using shared experiences to build a bond with young people. “For me, it’s about finding common ground,” explains peer mentor Sam. “I’m very open about sharing my lived experience, but it’s about more than that – my experience might not be their experience. So it’s also about finding common interest and building the relationship.”

This is an important step in gaining young people’s trust. “Once you do that, you’re able to speak very openly with young folk about the pitfalls and consequences of being involved in crime,” says Sam.

“That’s important because a lot of these guys don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. So it’s about making them aware that they’re victims of exploitation, and giving them an understanding that they can do something positive with their lives – introducing them to activities, getting them into football or boxing for example.”

However, there is a delicate balance to be struck when it comes to selecting mentors – their knowledge and experience needs to be relevant, but they also need to have gained some distance from their own involvement in serious and organised crime.

“We look for people who understand the local landscape, but are not still actively involved in it,” Sharon explains. “We recognise they can still be in their own recovery, so we’re careful not to expose them to things that might make them relapse. But that requires a lot of care, as we know they are going to see and hear about really stressful situations on a daily basis.”

In practice, this means peer mentors are supported closely by managers, but also trusted to support young people as they think best. “We get a lot of freedom from our managers,” says peer mentor Josh. “But they’re always checking in and giving us advice too, which is fantastic because it can get a bit deep out there. You need that encouragement and inspiration to keep going.”

Alongside this combination of freedom and support, one of the most important aspects of the peer mentor role is authenticity. “The biggest mistake a lot of professionals and police make is that they think young people involved in crime are stupid,” says Sam. “Actually, they’re very, very smart – they have to be good at reading people to survive in a culture that’s absolutely ruthless. So they can tell if you’re not authentic, so you have to mean and believe what you’re saying to them.”

“For a lot of the young people, it’s a culture thing,” adds Josh, reiterating the importance of having peer mentors that young people can genuinely relate to and identify with. “Anybody coming in with a bit of education or a different accent, they see as completely different to them. That can be how they feel about social services.”

A lot of these guys don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, so it’s about making them aware that they’re victims of exploitation, and giving them an understanding that they can do something positive with their lives
Sam, SOCEIS peer mentor

Into the future

Action for Children sees SOCEIS as an early intervention project, first and foremost. In practice, however, it has been difficult to put this type of service in place in some of the project areas.

“Ideally, we want to have a model where we run early intervention sessions in schools, for example, where staff have identified a group who could be at risk of exploitation,” Sharon explains. “They might be smoking cannabis, dealing within their peer group, skipping school – these are all vulnerabilities we know can lead to being at risk of exploitation.

“But, even knowing that, in one of our locations it still took us two years before we could get any early intervention work started, and in another we still haven’t got to that point, because we are so inundated with at-risk young people and working to keep them safe and alive. That’s a problem because we’re using all our resources just in dealing with what’s coming through, rather than identifying and addressing the root causes.”

Solving this problem and moving towards an early intervention model in all the project areas is one of Action for Children’s long-term goals for SOCEIS, alongside a wider change to the systems that the project works within. “As the young people we work with are so often both perpetrators and victims, they end up being involved in two systems,” Sharon explains.

“Within the justice system and the safeguarding systems, there are elements that support and protect young people, but they’re not as coordinated and joined up as they should be, and they’re inconsistent across the UK.”

Going forward, the organisation aims to influence policy to start to change this, using evidence from SOCEIS to build the case. “We work across different jurisdictions in England, Scotland and Wales, so there will be different approaches,” says Sharon. “But essentially, what we want to develop is a coordinated response to child criminal exploitation that brings together what is currently split between two systems, with a focus on achieving better outcomes for young people.”


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Last updated: Thursday 20 June, 2024