Many councils do not recognise serious youth violence as a public health issue and are missing opportunities to prevent vulnerable children being exploited, the children’s commissioner has said.
Anne Longfield said teenagers will continue to die on England’s streets without a joined-up public health response to exploitation.
A lack of co-ordination between agencies is failing to prevent thousands of children from falling through gaps in the education, health, justice and care systems, she said.
The children’s commissioner’s office requested data from local authorities via their directors of public health for its latest report.
Some 91% of the 128 local authorities which responded were tracking some of the risk factors associated with gang involvement and serious violence.
But just one in four local authorities were tracking risks most closely associated with exploitation, such as school exclusion, being outside mainstream education, going missing, substance misuse, and living with a family member convicted of an offence.
Just one in four were using their public health mechanisms “well” to deal with youth violence, it found.
The commissioner told BBC Breakfast: “It’s two years ago since Government said, rightly, that there should be a public health approach to this, prevent it happening.
“Now, of course, we’ve had the pandemic over the last year and it’s easy to see why it’s dropped down the agenda.
“But sadly for these teenagers whilst there was a small dip at first, it’s now back to full operation for gangs, for county lines.”
The report noted the areas quantifying youth violence were more likely to record a wider range of risk factors, directly fund youth violence programmes and have a drugs policy for children and young people.
Ms Longfield said: “If intervention comes when children are already entangled in these dangerous enterprises, it is difficult to reach them.
“To have any hope of protecting children from this threat, the response from government, and all agencies charged with keeping kids safe, must be as dogged and resourceful as the criminals are.
“Integral to this response is a focus on identifying at-risk children early and preventing them from ever becoming involved with criminal gangs.”
She added: “Tragically, until there is this joined-up public health response to gangs that identifies and helps all those children at risk as early as possible, teenagers will keep dying on our streets.”
Research from 2019 found 120,000 children were falling through the gaps in education and social care systems, and Ms Longfield said this is likely to rise due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She welcomed £35 million from the Government to establish violence reduction units across 18 police forces, but said “insufficient attention” has been paid to the need for agencies in other areas to work with police.
The commissioner called for a cross-Government framework to co-ordinate safeguarding efforts of the police, public health teams, the NHS and children’s services.
She also wants a national drugs strategy for children, specific public health funding for local authorities to tackle exploitation and violence, and for additional support in schools.
Nesil Caliskan, chairwoman of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “We agree that it is important to intervene early to tackle the root causes of serious violence and address the risk factors which we know can lead to a young person becoming involved in violent crime.
“However, this requires multi-agency working across a range of partners, including health, education, local government, the police and voluntary sector, so singling out one area of this co-ordinated effort is not representative of how local authorities are working.”
Children’s Society policy manager Iryna Pona said: “Too often, this is seen in isolation as a criminal justice issue, and it is these child victims who are arrested rather than those grooming them.
“What is needed is a stronger focus on prevention and early help for children and families to address issues and challenges in children’s lives that leave them vulnerable to exploitation.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We know there have been additional pressures on local services during these unprecedented circumstances, which is why we have provided £3.7 billion to councils to manage these, including support for young people at risk of criminal exploitation.
“All the agencies involved in protecting our most vulnerable children are working together to tackle serious violence and investing in projects to keep them safe. We are also investing £25 million in tackling county lines drug trafficking, including funding for law enforcement activity and expanding the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre.”