SEND kids are more vulnerable to gangs

Children and young people with learning difficulties and additional needs are often targeted by criminal gangs and extremist groups. This is a group of kids who are often isolated and feel they do not fit in to wider society. This makes them particularly vulnerable when people come along who welcome them and give them trust and a purpose. One young person talks about watching her brother, who has ADHD and ODD, be drawn into gang life and end up in secure units.

My brother’s journey to being criminally exploited by a gang.

 Gang and criminal exploitation have become a massive issue for the UK especially in big cities such as London. Gang exploitation is when a child is recruited often by older people in a gang and coerced into committing crimes such as delivering drugs, carrying a weapon, theft and many more. These children are often involved in county lines, grooming and modern day slavery. Criminal exploitation can happen to any child but there are multiple factors which make a child vulnerable to this which include being excluded from school and having a learning disability, which makes providing appropriate education for children with learning disabilities vital. In this blog I’m going to share my brother’s experience with gang exploitation and how his lack of support growing up in education contributed to his involvement with gangs and crime.

Image shows a persons chest. They are wearing a hoody with a tshirt underneath, the t-shirt has an unreadable signature on it. They are wearing two necklaces, one with a large gold cross, the other with the word "gang" on it. The image is monochrome in shades of blue. The image was taken by raphael Bernhart
Image shows a walkway tunnel under a bridge or road. The sides are covered in graffiti and there is a shadowy figure standing alone at the end.


 At a young age my brother was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), which are understood as a learning disability and behaviour disorder. For him this often manifested in impulsive and often aggressive behaviour. This made accessing education difficult, as most schools couldn’t provide him with the correct support to access education. He hopped between mainstream, special schools and pupil referral units (behaviour units) and was often excluded completely.

By the age of 11, he started secondary school at a mainstream school, due to making progress in a specialised school. My family were apprehensive about this change as we felt he wasn’t ready for this, but ultimately the education department pushed for his place there. Within just a few weeks of attending this school he had to be removed, the lack of support meant he would become distressed and violent in the classroom and then escape and become missing.

No school, no stability

Now without a school he lacked the routine and opportunity to mingle with peers that he had prior. This led him to become missing and seek out peers and people he understood as “friends”. However, the people he began to seek out on the streets were members of a local gang who were notorious for recruiting and exploiting young people. He would run away from the family home, become missing and during this time commit petty crimes like shoplifting but also would deliver drugs for the gang.

Gangs promise friends, money and status

The gang promised him friends and money, an obvious incentive for a child who was denied the opportunity to make proper friends at school. 

The first signs we noticed as a family was his deterioration in behaviour, although he had often been aggressive his behaviour was now completely out of control, dangerous and he was constantly angry. He would break into the family home, with a weapon and attempt to seriously injure the family. He would go missing for weeks but would periodically return to steal money from the home for the gang with drugs on his person. It became almost impossible to stop him, especially as he was being transported by the gang on mopeds and stolen cars.

The most worrying thing that became apparent was his view of his relationship with these people, he wholeheartedly felt that these people were his friends and were there to look out for him, he felt he was invincible with them. To the extent that when he was sadly slashed across the face with a knife by a gang member it only took a few days for him to go missing and seek them out again. They seemed to have an unbreakable grasp over him. His loyalty to them was alarming and explained his willingness to be involved with county lines.

County Lines

County lines are when children are recruited to deliver drugs from urban areas to suburban and rural areas as they are unsuspected and most likely won’t be stopped by police or other law enforcement. He would become untraceable and missing in different places across the country meaning even the police struggled to locate him. We also noticed his clothes were consistently damaged and dirty and he was often ill after these journeys.


  Unfortunately, my brother’s situation is not an isolated case, there are thousands of children every year that are picked up by gangs and experience criminal exploitation. Prevention is key in situations like this however, it’s important parents, teachers and the wider public are aware of the signs that a child is being exploited by a gang.

Some signs a child is being exploited by a gang are:

  • Repeatedly going missing, making unexplained and secret journeys
  • Missing from school and falling behind
  • Being constantly violent aggressive and angry 
  • Taking drugs and consuming alcohol or having it on their possession
  • A change in language i.e., using slang or inappropriate aggressive language
  • Being involved in petty crimes like shoplifting
  • Having unexplained injuries 

A sibling’s view 

As someone who watched my brother’s involvement with the gang unfold, prevention for me looks like better educational support. For years now the most impactful thing for him has been education. During his younger years like I mentioned before he struggled to hold down a place in a mainstream school.

Image shows a school staircase and a male walking alone up the stairs.

At around the age of 10, with lots of effort and pushing we were able to get him a place at a school for kids with special educational needs (SEN), which specialises in autism as well as ADHD. This school massively transformed things for him. He was able to make friends, get involved with activities and was able to sit through lessons and access the learning. He was provided with two to one care and massively flourished.

This had a knock-on effect at home also; he was a lot calmer, rarely violent and he began to be able to cope with triggers. He gained a healthy routine of going to school, taking his medication, and socialising. However, the transition to high school (an already hard one, especially for him) is where things changed. The mainstream school he started could not accommodate him in the same way which had a triggered problems in his home life and social life, causing his deterioration. And this is now what continues to keep him out of education.

With his experience in mind, I believe that specialised education for children with learning disabilities is what can prevent involvement in gangs, crime, and exploitation. Possibly an SEN school with the correct tools to support him would have prevented his exploitation and the long-lasting damage this caused. Unfortunately, however, SEN schools are often underfunded and not accessible to everyone. Whether it’s simply due to location or because they are selective, with most parents having to excessively advocate for their children to be taken seriously.

Police – a lack of understanding

Notably the police are massively ill informed on disabilities especially learning disabilities and this was evident during many interventions. We found they often made matters worse in terms of escalating him and after time almost began to enable him to continue to have contact with the gang. With a lack of school, he became socially excluded which undeniably contributed to the exploitation as he craved friends. But ultimately it starts with education. Education was and is was the main preventive thing for him and is also widely recognised as being pivotal in keeping those with learning disabilities safe from exploitation and out of prison.

Education is key

Three years on from his initial involvement from the gang he has intermittently continued to seek the gang out, despite time in a secure unit and other placements, which is why prevention is key. We can prevent and protect children from criminal exploitation by providing them with the correct social support and education, especially those vulnerable. Once a child is involved with a gang and criminal exploitation it can be very hard to bring them back from this and encourage them to engage in education as well as keep them safe.

If you suspect a family is involved in gang or criminal behaviour, there are a number of charities who can provide advice and support. Local police may also be able to advise you.

Our author is a university student here in the UK. We are not publishing their name for safeguarding reasons.

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