Kate Telford is an online counsellor as well as an external clinical supervisor. She specialises in working with young people who are at significant risk of harm through trafficking, exploitation, and abuse and has worked within the Youth Offending Service. Here, she offers her perspective on the reasons for knife crime, its relationship to drugs, and effective approaches for children and young people who find themselves in gangs.
Knife crime is more complicated that the headlines would have us believe. You soon realise how exploited young people are who are involved in knife crime and drug running. How there are a lot of issues at play and how most young people are just looking to feel safe and to belong.
In the Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), young people came to see me because of a court order. About 80% of them were boys. Most had complex attachment styles due to difficult early relationships with parents or key care givers, or because of the trauma or abuse they’d suffered.
Groomed by Gangs
I saw it time and again: young people groomed by older gang members. Initially they’re friends with gang members who have targeted them because of a perceived vulnerability. Then they realise they’re stuck; they can’t leave the gang for fear of what will happen to them or their loved ones. They find themselves in a network where they are exploited – criminally, and sometimes sexually.
It’s extremely difficult to get a young person out of the situation they’re in. Mostly, I want to bring them home and look after them.
The majority I’ve seen who are involved with drug running, gangs and knife culture are between 14-17, but I’ve seen children as young as 10.
It’s hard to understand why a young person might join a gang until you talk to young people involved. Then you can see exactly how it happens. In life, we all find people we identify with. That’s a normal part of having friends and understanding society. But when you have consistently poor attachment figures in your life and are used to abusive, controlling relationships, you continually gravitate towards those people – particularly to older people who you believe might keep you safe.
Safety is the big word here. People get involved in gangs because they make them feel safe. For young people involved in criminal exploitation or who know those that are, the logic is: I know people with knives, I need a knife. It escalates. Again, it all comes back to the need to feel safe.
Also, it’s less about young people actively joining gangs and more about them being actively recruited. Gang members know how to recruit. They know how to target a young person who they can see doesn’t belong, doesn’t have money, isn’t happy. They offer them hope and give them a ‘home’.
Drugs and Gangs
By delivering and selling drugs for older gang members, vulnerable boys can feel they’re ‘proper gangsters’. They feel respected by their peers.
Knife crime goes hand in hand with drug dealing and drug running. Some of the young people I saw had been threatened by knives; most didn’t carry them themselves, although some did. Threats would have been made because they’re weren’t selling enough drugs; there’s ongoing pressure to sell more. Some had been dropped off in unknown cities and told to sell a specific amount before they could return home.
Most young people aren’t penalised for carrying a knife; it’s more important to look at the underlying issues – the reasons for them having that knife – and to start to address those.
The way we helped while I was working with YOTs and now as an online counsellor is to listen. To support young people presenting with anxiety and paranoia. What they definitely don’t respond to is preaching or scare tactics, particularly when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
Our initial approach has to be harm prevention: to help them use drugs and other substances safely. It’s similar to self-harm in that respect.
It’s also about believing them. Their experiences of authorities (police, teachers, politicians in the media) is that they’re written off as yobs. This cements the idea they already have of themselves as worthless and broken. We need to show them that they are valued and important.
If they do make it out the other side, they need to be supported to find the right level of ongoing help. Everybody’s situation is different, however, in the vast majority of cases, environment is a crucial factor. They need help to get out of the toxic situation they found themselves in.
We need to help them see there’s another way. Young people need to hear from people who have experiences of knife crime, of drugs and gangs, from those who have been to prison. They need to hear from young people who have turned things around.
Young people are unlikely to listen if someone turns up at their school to talk about knives or gangs who hasn’t had experience of it themselves. The problem doesn’t need catastrophising.
The advice to young people who might know someone who is carrying a knife is tell your friends, tell your teachers. Their friend carrying a knife isn’t their responsibility; they may need to stop hanging around with them. For those involved, we need education and support. There’s a hierarchy of needs we know need to be met to allow for recovery, so we need to start there.
Most of all, we need to start helping our young people feel a sense of safety and belonging so they have no need to turn to gangs.