Failings exposed by sex grooming scandals are being repeated as thousands of children are preyed on by “ruthless” criminal gangs, a major report has warned.
It estimates there are around 27,000 child gang members in England, but only a fraction are on the radar of authorities.
Criminal groups are believed to be recruiting younger children and girls because their “profile” means they are less likely to be known to police and other agencies.
The findings prompted calls for the Government to designate child criminal exploitation as a “national priority”.
Publishing the study, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said: “The criminal gangs operating in England are complex and ruthless organisations, using sophisticated techniques to groom children, and chilling levels of violence to keep them compliant.
“At the moment it is too easy for them to succeed.
“Thousands of children in towns and cities across England are at risk and the same attention must be paid to protecting them as to other major threats to children.
“However, I am worried that all the mistakes that led to serious safeguarding failings in relation to child sexual exploitation in towns and cities up and down the country are now being repeated.
“Many local areas are not facing up to the scale of the problem, they are not taking notice of the risk factors in front of them, and they are not listening to parents and communities who ask for help.”
Confidence in child safeguarding arrangements has been rocked by a string of sexual exploitation cases in recent years.
Analysis of crime survey data by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner suggests there are 27,000 children aged between 10 and 17 who identify as a member of a street gang.
A street gang is defined as a group of young people who hang around together and have a specific area or territory, have a name or other identifier, possibly have rules or a leader, and who may commit crimes together.
Researchers said that for some children gang membership represents little more than a loose social connection and not all young members are involved in crime or serious violence.
“For many children, involvement in these gangs is not a voluntary act,” the report added.
“In some areas children are considered members of a gang based purely on their location, their family or their wider associations.”
Gangs have sought to diversify their recruitment as police have become better at spotting “traditional” members, the paper found.
It said techniques for recruiting children are similar to grooming for sexual abuse, starting with “inducements”.
In one case, there was said to have been a “written manual” setting out a clear timeframe for entrapment.
The commissioner’s office raised particular concerns about an estimated 34,000 children who are in, or on the periphery of, a gang and have experienced violence in the last 12 months.
Gang members may become known to local children’s services or the criminal justice system, according to the report.
It calculated that only 6,560 children involved in gangs are known to authorities.
“In reality the under-identification is likely to be greater still,” the report said.
The findings come amid intense concern over youth violence, and knife crime in particular.
Earlier this month it was disclosed that the number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales had risen to its highest level since records started more than 70 years ago, with increases most pronounced among younger age groups.
The assessment chimes with warnings about “county lines” gangs that exploit children and teenagers to run lucrative drug supply networks.
Simon Blackburn, chairman of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “The exploitation of children and vulnerable young people by gangs is a significant and growing concern for councils, who take this issue extremely seriously.
“To help stop young people being criminally exploited or groomed, it is vital that Government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils’ public health budgets, which needs to be addressed in the Spending Review.”
Jon Brown, of the NSPCC, said: “Until recently, sexually exploited children were seen as part of the problem and complicit in joining gangs. We cannot afford to make that mistake this time around.
“When authorities come into contact with young people in criminal cases, they must understand how coercion and grooming has lured and trapped these children into committing crime.”
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said: “It’s worrying that many children involved in gangs are not known to services.
“Seriously stretched police and social workers are struggling to support growing numbers of children with complex needs, and help is rarely offered before they reach crisis point.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting vulnerable children by cracking down on the ruthless gangs that seek to exploit them and by offering them the support and skills they need to lead lives free of violence.
“That is why we launched the Serious Violence Strategy, which puts a greater focus on early intervention alongside a tough law enforcement response.
“We have proposed a new statutory duty on partners across education, social services and health to work together to tackle violence as part of a public health approach, and are providing £220 million to support children and young people at risk of becoming involved in violence and gangs.”