Putting a public health approach at the heart of the response

By Heather Flinders | 17 September 2019

On Good Friday 2007, 14-year-old Paul Erhahon was murdered in Leytonstone after being set upon by half a dozen teenagers. He was stabbed in the heart with a seven-inch blade and managed to stagger home before dying in his parents’ arms.

The murder shocked the borough’s tightly-knit communities, who had until this point remained untouched by this strain of youth-on-youth gang activity. It turned out that the young people who committed the murder were part of the Cathall Boys gang.

Paul’s death came barely two months after the publication of Reluctant Gangsters by Professor John Pitts, University of Bedfordshire, the first in-depth analysis of how these modern day gangs operate, commissioned by Waltham Forest Council.

The council, at this stage rated ‘weak’ by the Audit Commission, was not able to implement the recommendations made by Pitts, and the police continued to struggle to stem the sporadic episodes of youth violence which plagued the borough.

In 2009, Waltham Forest LBC invited the architects of the Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit to the borough to find out what could be learnt from their public health approach, which targets the root causes of crime as well as crime itself.

As a result, the Gang Prevention Programme (GPP) was born: developed over four months and launched in January 2011 with a mass ‘call on’, where individuals known to police were visited at home, told of the council’s plans to tackle crime in the borough, the consequences of being involved in gang activity and the programmes available to help them leave criminal lifestyles.

Bolstered by widespread community support and a budget of £3 million, the GPP was able to provide gang exit work and fund community groups, as well as providing a partnership team to support troubled families.

Whole-family focused therapy and prison-exit work had a dramatic effect in terms of reducing both the rates and seriousness of violent offences, often through rebuilding young offenders’ relationships with their absent parents.

In 2017, the borough was rocked by four more gang-related murders. The landscape was changing and gaps in our response were once again becoming apparent.

The need to re-examine the changing face of gang culture and the crimes that come with it meant we took the decision to once again get an independent academic to analyse gang activity in the borough. The report – From Postcodes to Profits – was produced by Dr. Andrew Whittaker of London South Bank University, and found gangs were more money-orientated and ruthless in the drugs trade and less linked to postcodes than they were a decade ago.

It was published in 2018 as London was gripped by a significant rise in youth violence. Crime – which had until recently been the fourth biggest concern for residents in the borough – was now the number one.

Waltham Forest LBC increased funding by an additional £800,000 over a four-year period, on top of the existing £2.2 million already allocated to the GPP. The Violence Reduction Partnership (VRP) was established in November 2018 to extend the scope of GPP within a re-imagined public health approach, with a strategy following four strands: curtailing violence, treating those exposed to it, supporting individuals vulnerable to violence due to risk factors and strengthening communities to withstand the effects of violence.

The VRP recognises that to tackle violence on the street we must tackle violence in the home. Research has shown that 52 per cent of young offenders have witnessed or experienced domestic abuse. It addresses the impact of adverse childhood experiences on young offenders, who are screened for mental health difficulties on arrest and fast-tracked to children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) where appropriate. The high level of mental health issues in those arrested is marked, but this approach puts a public health approach at the heart of the response to criminality in our young people.

Our own analysis showed that our children struggle in the difficult transition between primary and secondary education, which can be the first step toward a downward spiral for some. To tackle this, we have introduced the Barnardo’s LifeSkills programme for up to 10,000 young people in the borough. Developed in the US with considerable success, the programme aims to build resilience in young people across a range of topics including being aware of the subtle techniques gangs use to recruit them.

The problems of gangs and how they prey on our young and vulnerable children not only need long term solutions but also a clear understanding of the triggers that make some of our young people more susceptible to turning to the gang lifestyle and the violence that goes with it.  It is only by using all the levers at the state’s disposal that we can hope to ensure our young people have the right skills to repel them.

Heather Flinders is strategic director of families at Waltham Forest LBC

Tackling youth crime:building the evidence for what really works

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