Multi-agency approach needed to combat the abuse and exploitation of young people by criminal gangs

21 February 2023
NICCY Dudes Adults Not Listening to Children

NICCY has long expressed concern that, in the legacy of the conflict, children in communities in Northern Ireland continue to be subject to threats, intimidation, coercion, violence and exploitation by powerful actors, groups and gangs and called on government and statutory agencies to effectively work together as a priority, to safeguard young people in such situations.

However, the civil disturbances related to the ‘Brexit’ protocol during Easter of 2021 was a reminder of the slow progress in prioritising the protection of children from the influence of armed groups. Therefore, on the 30th July 2021, the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) published formal advice¹ to government concerning the criminal coercion and exploitation of children by armed groups and gangs. This advice was informed by children’s rights, the experiences of children themselves and their representatives and learning from other jurisdictions.

The advice called for:

A unified strategic response to protect children from harm including abuse, violence, coercion and exploitation by organised gangs and groups. This response must be embedded in safeguarding and children in need processes and implement the following recommendations:

1. Raise awareness of child abuse and exploitation in this context: and build confidence in the role of statutory agencies to support and protect children, families and communities;

2. Prevent harm and abuse to children and young people: through sustained activity to reduce community vulnerability to violence and exploitation, including those actions set out in the Action Plan on Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime;

3. Protect and intervene where children are abused and exploited: ensuring that robust safeguarding procedures are in place and that agencies are working together to protect children and support their recovery. This will require the ongoing involvement of children’s social care in all aspects of the strategic response and the review of key guidance and procedures, including co-operating to Safeguard Children and Young People and Working Arrangements for the Welfare and Safeguarding and Trafficking and Modern Slavery procedures to make sure that consistent definitions and agreed referral and response pathways to all forms of harm, including criminal exploitation, are in place.

4. Pursue those who seek to harm, abuse and exploit children: through effective identification, disruption, investigation and prosecution of offenders. This will require the review of available criminal offences and arrangements to assess where these and approaches to investigation and prosecution may need strengthened.

The then, Ministers for Health and Justice agreed that the recommendations should be progressed by the Child Protection Senior Officials Groups² (CPSOG), an inter-agency group representing social care, education and justice. In October 2021, the Commissioner met with the CPSOG and was informed that a Task and Finish group would be established to seek to address child criminal exploitation in NI. It was understood that this would take approximately 6 months. NICCY understands³ that the group undertook work scoping the issues and exploring areas such as:

• Definitions, existing policies and procedures and vulnerability factors;
• Awareness of Criminal Coercion and Exploitation (CCE);
• Gaps in current provision, identifying and addressing specific needs;
• Collaboration and multi-agency training; and
• Emerging approaches to CCE across both NI and other jurisdictions,

Additionally, the Education Authority and QUB have been commissioned by CPSOG to conduct a piece of work to better understand the views and experiences of children and young people. This work is due to be published in the middle of March 2023.

In March 2022, the NI Affairs Committee commenced an Inquiry into: “The effect of paramilitary activity and organised crime on society in Northern Ireland.”⁴

The inquiry has taken evidence from a range of stakeholders including PSNI, DoJ and youth groups as well as NICCY. Overwhelmingly it is clear that there is significant concern that children and young people continue to be coerced and exploited by organised gangs and paramilitary style organisations.

Throughout the inquiry it has been recognised that the ‘Tackling Paramilitarism Taskforce’ is working to address the needs of young people and supporting statutory and voluntary youth work groups to identify and support young people vulnerable to such exploitation.

However, there remains concern that the child protection system has yet to adapt and reform its processes to recognise these children and young people as victims.

The disturbances of April 2021 should have focussed the attention of statutory agencies to identify and fill the gaps in response to young people who were subject to criminal coercion and/or exploitation ensuring that they were safe and living in a context to achieve better outcomes.

The CPSOG Task and Finish Group has completed its work and reported to the CPSOG who, in the middle of February 2023, agreed 15 recommendations (organised across the 4 overarching NICCY recommendations). There is a proposed timeframe of between 6 to 24 months for completion of the work but 8 of the recommendations are deemed to require additional funding. Due to the delay in the completion of this work NICCY is not in a position to provide detailed feedback to the CPSOG on their work. However initial impressions are that whilst it is accepted that some unavoidable delays meant that the 6-month timeframe, initially presented to the Commissioner could not be met, it is unacceptable that 18 months after her advice was issued an action plan has just been issued and there has been no substantive progress on relevant issues. The work undertaken by the CPSOG and the task and finish group whilst welcome, should not have taken this long. NICCY is concerned that with tensions in NI increasing, children will become increasingly vulnerable and the 2-year timeframe is of serious concern and unnecessarily long. Additionally, dependence on additional resources for half of the recommendations makes the stated timeframe aspirational at best.

Therefore, NICCY is not assured at this time that the awareness of this form of child abuse and exploitation has been given the serious consideration required , or that there is an increased likelihood that harm is prevented, nor that children are being protected to a greater extent through robust safeguarding procedures. The lack of timely progress in these areas and in pursuing those responsible, has also meant that the number of adults being prosecuted continues to be unacceptably low.

Twenty-five years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement too many children and young people continue to be victimised by armed groups who use the label of ‘paramilitarism’ to promote a sense of their own ‘legitimacy’ from communities here.

Young people continue to be abused and exploited by criminal gangs and feel that they have been abandoned by services and political institutions. There must be concerted multi-agency work – that includes the voluntary and community sector -with a clear child protection/safeguarding focus, to ensure that the stranglehold of these criminal gangs is loosened and eventually eradicated. Only then will young people in every community across NI stand a chance of achieving their full potential.


3 Correspondence from Deputy Permanent Secretary, 25th January 2023

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