‘Social work needs to tackle gang issues on a community scale’

Opinion: Early interventions by social workers can only go a small way in rectifying the problem of violent gangs. Structural change is needed.

Picture credit: John Powell/Rex Features

by Rebecca Joy Novell

We all know that the journey from childhood to adulthood can, at times, be an incredibly difficult one. We struggle not only with authority, rules, boundaries, morality and social norms but also with our own identity.

Imagine then, added to this minefield, a scenario in which you live in a violent and gang-afflicted community.

From as far back as you can remember, on your way to and from school you have had to walk past older boys, some of whom you have heard have stabbed, shot and killed people. They scare you but you cannot avoid them. Everyone knows they run the estate and that is never going to change. Sometimes you see these boys beat up your friends. Sometimes they beat you up.

But as you’ve grown up, you have begun to notice that if you do what these boys ask of you, the less they beat you up and the easier your life becomes. You don’t always like what they ask you to do, but if it is a choice between keeping yourself and your family safe and transporting a small bag from one house to another, the decision is easy. For many young people in England, the descent in to gang life is marked by small but prudent steps.

Failed by everyone

The Enough is Enough report from the Centre of Social Justice, published last week, notes that many young people currently “face considerable threat and danger within their local community”. It also describes “repeated failure on the part of some social care services, amongst other statutory agencies, to take an early intervention approach to the involvement in street gangs, and to them being at risk of suffering street gang violence”.

As a social worker specialising in working with young people involved in, or at risk from, gangs, I know all too well the failures experienced by gang-affected young people. The majority of the young people referred to me are between the ages of 17 and 22. All of them are male, all of them are NEET (not in employment, education or training) and all of them have been a victim of serious youth violence. They are failed by education, housing services, social services, politicians, police and parents. As the Enough is Enough report correctly highlights, “the people who can help them are once they get into the criminal justice system” and by then, often too much damage has already been done.

‘Who hasn’t been stabbed?’

Another pertinent finding in the report is the incredibly sad fact that young people who are suffering street gang violence are rarely treated as child protection cases. In my experience, this is because we, as a society, struggle to recognise the dichotomy that perpetrators of crime can, and usually are, also victims of crime.

Eighty per cent of my case load have been victims of a stabbing. When I discuss their attacks with them, the conversations are short: “Yeah, I was stabbed. So what? Who hasn’t been.” Asking for help is pointless because once you’re a criminal that is all you are. The young men I work with have very little hope for the future because, realistically, there is no guarantee they will have a future. Life has to be lived today because tomorrow is promised to no one.

Early intervention by well-trained social workers, youth workers and support staff can only go a small way in rectifying the problem of violent gangs. Workers can ensure that young people are being supported with family, school and self-esteem issues, however, what is really needed is structural change. Gang crime is a community issue; it does not affect one person in one area. It sweeps across estates.

The real root causes

The CSJ report recognises that we need to tackle “gang culture at its roots”. What we need to understand is that ‘roots’ does not mean working with seven and eight year olds. The roots of gang culture are broad social issues such as inequality, unemployment, poverty of aspiration, the illegality of drugs, violent masculine stereotypes and young people’s lack of trust in professionals. Just as the brunt of responsibility for solving this pernicious problem cannot fall on the shoulders of individual workers, so we cannot expect individual young people to stand up to the gangs in their neighbourhood alone.

Life on gang-inflicted estates is incredibly bleak. Social work needs to tackle issues on a community scale rather than continuing to focus on individuals. Last week’s Enough is Enough report has captured the problems that gang-affected young people face, but I believe it needs to go further to acknowledge that we cannot solve structural problems one person at a time. The fact is that while we allow communities to be plagued by poverty, unemployment and violence, the cycle of gang life will continue.

Rebecca Joy Novell is a social worker working with gangs in inner-city London. The opinions expressed in this piece do not represent those of her employer.

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2 Responses to ‘Social work needs to tackle gang issues on a community scale’

  1. Angus Skinner July 7, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Well written Rebbecca – realistic and succinct. In addition to the justice issues – poverty, mainly – is there an issue of meaning, -purpose in life?

  2. Roselyn Thompson July 14, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    I agree that gang issues is a problem in our society and that more should be done to prevent the negative side of gang problems. To work with gangs it will take multi-agency working not just social workers. I live in Greater Manchester and gang operate in the area, as a citizen of the area I conduct my own support to family that have youths that in not in education or training(NEET) I sleek with them on a regular basis to find out what they want from life, I liaising with local colleges, businesses and employers to get apprenticeship and work for some of these youths. I use my social work education and transferable skills that I develop here and in Jamaice and this opened door for the individuals. Porverty, alcoholism, poor parenting, domestic violence, drugs misuse and peer pressure in some of the causes, then again gang go hands in hands with family background and youth have to prove their hardness.