Around 27,000 children have been recruited into gangs by “ruthless” criminals who exploit youngsters by arming them with weapons and exposing them to violence, a major report has warned. The study – carried out for the children’s commissioner – estimates most child gang members are unknown to authorities, prompting fears that failings exposed by previous sex grooming scandals are being repeated. Boys and girls aged between 10 and 17 are being targeted by criminal groups and many of them end up getting involved in serious violence.

One former gang member known as Richard, now aged 23, told Sky News that youngsters were encouraged to join in so that they could earn respect from their seniors. “There’s a sense of those pushing you to do it, but at the end of the day the decision comes to you,” he said. “When you sit down and speak to some of these youths, they’re lost. When I mean lost, in the sense of, they’re literally following and going along with it. A lot of them don’t know who they are or what they want to do. “They just want to do what seems to be cool and on top of that to be fair there’s nothing really to do.”

Richard, who was jailed for two years at the age of 16 for his part in an armed robbery, said he believed he had been born into gang life. The report found other youngsters felt much the same way, with some considered members of a gang based purely on their location, family or wider associations. Those who are recruited from outside such circles fall victim to techniques similar to those used to grooming for sexual abuse, the paper added.

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield told Sky News: “What we found in this report is that there’s very little information and knowledge about the numbers of children in gangs, or indeed the help they either are getting or could get. “I am worried that the failings from child sexual exploitation a decade ago aren’t being learnt. And yet again, there could be a huge number of children who are at extreme risk, who aren’t getting the support they need. “There are around 27,000 children that identify as being in gangs, many more that know a gang member or indeed, are around serious violence. Only a quarter of those are known to the authorities. “There are children who are very vulnerable, they’re much more likely to have social, emotional, mental health needs. “They’re much more likely to self-harm, they will often not be in school, they’re scared stiff essentially, most of them.”

The findings come amid growing concern over youth violence, and knife crime in particular. Earlier this month it was revealed the number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales had risen to its highest level since records started more than 70 years ago. The trend has been partly blamed on the emergence of “county lines” gangs that exploit children and teenagers to run lucrative drug supply networks. Figures obtained by Sky News last year suggested drug runners were operating on 2,000 routes across England, using thousands of children.

Children’s charities including the NSPCC and Barnardo’s have called on the government to do more to combat the issue, and have expressed concern that police and social workers are too stretched to cope.

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 £220m to support children and young people at risk of becoming involved in violence and gangs.”

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