Claudine Duberry, Director, Taking Positive Steps Foundation: 13 minute read

Positive steps to tackling county lines and gang behaviour*

Claudine Duberry, Director of Taking Positive Steps, explains how her organisation’s work can help tackle issues of youth engagement, gang involvement and county lines.

My experience in social care has been underpinned by a creative approach to problem-solving, especially when it comes to handling complex cases. When working with young children from challenging backgrounds, this idea of problem-solving requires drive and enthusiasm, with the young person placed at the centre of the work. This is something we aim to do at Taking Positive Steps.

The need to engage with children and young people who have been, or who are, on the brink of exclusion from the education system or are involved in the criminal justice system is not a new phenomenon. Yet the provision of joint resources and the engagement of this targeted group remains as challenging as ever. These challenges can be further complicated if the child or young person is involved in anti-social behaviour or unlawful groups – behaviour that is often attributed to stress, anger, frustration, rejection and/or peer pressure.

Sadly, it can be hard to isolate any one of these reasons as the main cause for such difficulties, and challenging social behaviour might therefore be attributed to any combination of these factors. However, we believe that positive change amongst this at-risk group can be achieved by way of positive collaboration – or by creating ‘a team around the child’.

Taking Positive Steps recognise that the success of each part of the children’s social care system is reliant on an efficient and effective space in delivering the best outcomes for young people and vulnerable adults who, due to many reasons – such as loss, attachment issues, individual or community impact trauma, school exclusions, grooming, gangs, county lines or modern-day slavery – are often difficult to reach or engage.

Professionals who work with children and young people who are socially disengaged or who are involved in unlawful groups (termed as gang affiliations) should always be looking at causes. But looking at causes through factors such as child-rearing practices, genetic make-up or the influence of wider social processes isn’t easy. Taking two individuals from the same community, apparently with the same experiences, there is no certainty that the outcomes will be the same because of the many variables that affect our behaviour. As social work professionals, it is often hard to navigate these variables, never mind the ever-changing codes between young people who are vulnerable to the influence of their peers and wider society.

At Taking Positive Steps we realise that young people engaging in unlawful groups will make choices partly based on their perception of opportunities, and often these opportunities present themselves when they would be least expected and when professionals are blindsided.

Looking at causes through factors such as child-rearing practices, genetic make-up or the influence of wider social processes isn’t easy

Reason to act

According to government figures, there were 6,685 permanent exclusions from schools in England in 2015-16, up from 5,785 the previous year(1). This amounted to 35 children per day. In 2019, almost 8,000 children were permanently excluded from primary, secondary, and special schools in the UK. The rate of expulsions has risen every year since 2012/13 and continues to rise(2).

This rising trend is a major cause for concern for Ofsted, schools and the government, which are all focused on raising attainment, as well as social services departments, which often engage with families who are affected by exclusion and its aftermath. For young people, expulsion and exclusion is a major driver towards criminal activity (gang affiliations, county lines, trap houses, murder) and poor mental health. It can also leave young people at risk of exploitation and grooming.

This is also a major concern because school exclusions cost the public purse £2.1 billion each year. Even then, the cost to the public is outweighed by the human cost. For more than two decades, communities have raised concerns about the nature of exclusions and urged the government to acknowledge the link between school exclusions and grooming, county lines, trap houses and the rise in youth fatalities(3).

The Children’s Society estimate that at least 46,000 young people are involved in criminal activity, and in London at least 4,000 teenagers are being exploited through county lines(4).

Organisations may end up spending a vast amount of money on children and young people who are ostracised from their communities

County lines represent a major part of this problem. More research needs to be carried out into how these sophisticated criminal organisations operate, but we do know that they can be an entry point into criminality for young people.

Unfortunately, the 2018 Economic and Social Costs of Crime report by the Home Office(5) made little mention of county lines. This perhaps underlines just how recent our understanding of this activity is, but it also means we do not yet know for certain the true cost of tackling this problem. For comparison, however, in England and Wales, the cost of a single murder to society is estimated to be £3.2 million.

Yet we do know the cost of rehabilitating youth offenders – a Secure Estate Youth Offending Institution can cost £55,000, a place in a Secure Training Centre (STC) approximately £203,000, and a Secure Children’s Home placement up to £211,000(6). From this, we can be certain that criminal activity linked to county lines – and any subsequent incarceration and rehabilitation – will have a considerable cost to the public purse.

This means that, individually and collectively, organisations may end up spending a vast amount of money on children and young people who are ostracised from their communities, are disorientated by the social structures that surround them, and who feel no allegiance to the wider society of which they are part.

While we are heartened by the urgency with which authorities have moved to tackle the problem, its widespread prevalence means that every area in the UK has had to deal with the issue – and sadly some agencies were too late in recognising the scale or the extent of the problem in their local area. For some children, this meant that risk was not addressed quickly enough.

Engaging with those who are involved in unlawful groups can be challenging due to the lack of commonality or understanding of present-day youth

Understanding offending

Understanding how offenders see things is an important part of the work carried out by criminal justice social workers. Their role is crucial to future crime prevention, as this work involves challenging and changing offenders’ perceptions of crime and criminal opportunities, and their need for instant gratification.

Nevertheless, before one can challenge or change the mind of a young person, social workers need to understand that the victim and perpetrator are often interchangeable; they are often children and young people caught up in a cycle of pressure caused by more senior peers.

Engaging with those who are involved in unlawful groups can be challenging due to the lack of commonality or understanding of present-day youth. It’s not enough to be the professional who holds the power, since the respect for power is often missing from a relationship where there is a power struggle in and child mental health referrals, and the growing rate of childhood poverty, have contributed to a powder- keg of issues for service providers to tackle, as well as creating individual and community challenges. Indeed, in 2017, more than 338,000 children were referred to CAMHS, and this figure is likely to be much greater in 2020(7). Tackling these issues requires a person-centred approach from a wide variety of organisations, all working together, and with the child or young person at the centre of the process.

More effective engagement with children and young people can be achieved by applying the theories and concepts of environmental criminology (see Box 1 for more information on environmental criminology). These theories and concepts remain helpful, and familiarity with the processes will make social workers stronger members of the problem-oriented team.

Tactics for success

Children may experience events that result in trauma, such as bullying, death of a family member, illness, out-of-home placement, and poverty, to mention only a few. We use the same principles as social workers in the way we provide our services. We recognise the prevalence of early and continuing adversity in the lives of clients, view presenting problems as symptoms of maladaptive coping, and understand how early trauma shapes a child’s fundamental beliefs about the world and how it affects them.

It is important for all professionals working with children and young people to employ a trauma-informed approach because trauma manifests itself in many shapes and forms.

Working as a remand social worker delivering trauma-informed gang work with a local authority allowed me to understand the Science of Violence. Here, the shame/reframe work involved in the approach had a transformational effect on young people, who were able to identify the role they themselves had played in perpetuating violence, before going on to modify their own behaviour. This approach was informed by the highly successful Shame Violence Intervention (SVI) work of Jonathan Asser in HMP Wandsworth. This methodology saw work take place with selected individuals who were violently acting out in prison and was able to evidence a 75% drop in total violent incidents over a period of three months(8).


Box 1: What is environmental criminology?
Environmental criminology has quickly become a widely recognised perspective on crime, providing an umbrella under which several theories find a home. The positivist school of thought relies on science for determining the cause of crime. It rejects the free-will concept and instead believes that each person is born different and becomes a product of their environment. The environmental criminology principle suggests that crime is influenced, if not caused, by a person’s spatial environment. The concept focuses specifically on how individuals, with all their diverse attributes, become influenced to commit crimes by elements in their immediate location.

Box 2: Trauma-informed approach
A trauma-informed approach can be implemented in any type of service setting or organisation and is different from trauma-specific interventions or treatments that are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma and to facilitate healing. Many of the children and young people with whom we work have been impacted by some form of trauma, which could be domestic violence in the home, bereavement in the family, loss of a friend, peer-on-peer bullying or grooming and exploitation.


Of course, this approach isn’t simple and can be challenging. However, it is necessary to understand that applying the Science of Violence is a flexible approach and can be delivered when working with children and young people in the community, in secure settings, and in prison. In each case, the aim is to address and reduce the escalation of violence and the traumatisation and re-traumatisation of individuals impacted by unlawful group association. For more information on the trauma-informed approach and the Science of Violence, please see Box 2 and Box 3.

Newly-qualified social worker training

It’s a sad fact of life that no amount of social work training will ever prepare professionals for the complex challenges of some of the most demanding young people.

After graduation, newly-qualified social workers may be asked to engage with some of the hardest clients they will ever have to work with, and if they choose to go into the field of children and families, young people on the streets may present their biggest challenge. These young people are often the most vulnerable and exploited, but will never acknowledge this, and whilst the biggest concern in our agency used to be for teenagers, this is no longer the case. Now, our greatest concern is for those who are under 10 years old. It can be especially challenging to engage with this group in a meaningful way – more so if simply approached from an authoritarian perspective.

To make inroads with this client group, social workers will have to learn about the streets and understand the factors that make these children and young people so susceptible to exploitation. Sometimes they may have to acknowledge that damage and harm cannot be fully reversed. But, if it can’t be stopped, then how can it be minimised? Social workers will have to look at the holistic picture; to see the child first before seeing a service user.

It’s something of a cliché, but working with vulnerable children in this environment, no two days will be the same, and even children from the same family background may present with vastly different challenges. Children and young people who are caught up in street life learn to be very discreet, lie and cheat, and are very loyal to their blood family as well as their street family. Abuse will become the norm from both children and adults, and using the authority card will only create more hostility.

To survive in this hostile atmosphere, it can be good to get to know the demographics and the young people (not the young people on your caseload) of the local area. Say hello to the youngsters and you might be surprised who says hello back. While statistics and performance outcomes might grab the headlines, being known as the worker who will go the extra mile might also produce valuable results.


Box 2: Trauma-informed approach
A trauma-informed approach can be implemented in any type of service setting or organisation and is different from trauma-specific interventions or treatments that are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma and to facilitate healing. Many of the children and young people with whom we work have been impacted by some form of trauma, which could be domestic violence in the home, bereavement in the family, loss of a friend, peer-on-peer bullying or grooming and exploitation.

Box 3: The 'Science of Violence'
The Science of Violence is a pioneering training programme aimed at empowering specialists in the social care and criminal justice sectors to work safely and effectively with trauma, challenging behaviour, and complex needs. Further to this, as our client group are usually young people who are experiencing their own challenges, the programme provides a better understanding the violent behaviour and exchanges that often happen between young people.

The Science of Violence training provides an accessible framework for understanding violence between young people and how it is perpetuated. Once the concept and delivery is understood, it empowers professionals to work safely and effectively with marginalised groups and can lead to improved engagement levels. 

We provide this training to professionals and teams who can access the training by contacting us directly via


Delivering change

As an organisation, we have devised and delivered numerous courses to date, engaging children from areas of high deprivation, including in Haringey, Lambeth, Newham and Kingston.

Our aim has been to have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable families and children from disadvantaged backgrounds, while also giving young people the tools and confidence to face the challenges they encounter in order to reduce exclusion and the lure of gang life. ■

For more information about Taking Positive Steps visit: https:// FORWARD-FROM-THE-FOUNDER-4.3.pdf


Box 4: At-risk youths and coronavirus
The UK is experiencing its worst viral epidemic in 100 years, while the NHS is still pushed to the very brink. Sadly, no amount of planning could have seen the widespread devastation, and particularly its impact on the vulnerable.

This includes those in secure estates, where young people are often placed miles away from family and loved ones, and may well be prevented from having any visitors due to the social distancing measures in place.

Even though the entire country went into lockdown, children and young people continue to go missing. By mid-April – just a month after entering lockdown – 10 children and young people had gone missing in London(9). One of these young people was known to us and was missing for three weeks. His mother turned to the media to highlight her concerns that her 16-year-old son had been groomed and was missing. While he had been excluded from school and diagnosed with ADHA, he had not been allocated a social worker.

This young man, who we refer to as Jay, was picked up by one of our mentors from an undisclosed location on May 12 2020 and has now been allocated a social worker. This is a challenging situation for social workers, who will be unable to have physical contact with the families they work with and will be required to think outside the box. They will need to ask families about what they can you do to support them – and this may not always simply be about finances, but about providing an ear when they have no one else to talk to.

Social work also has its challenges because it’s very much a 9-5 service and this is where Taking Positive Steps can come in, providing a 24-hour phone line for help and support.

Box 5: Social Workers hold the future of a child in their hands, it's important to see behind the mask
Many of the children who come to the attention of social services do so for different reasons, and when they do, we are required to do an assessment and compile a report. This can be especially challenging if the child or family does not think the social worker’s input is required.

To get the required information and compile an honest and humanistic report, we must take a step back and begin breaking down the barriers. This can be time-consuming and hard to do – especially when we acknowledge that, when out in the field, time is precious.

However, in the long term, this will be to the child’s benefit, because whatever is written about the young person will follow them and impact on their future. Far too many times we have seen young people denied placements because written documents have deemed them as high risk and dangerous, without any solid evidence.

I always advise my colleagues to see these children as children and young people first, and then anything else afterwards. So, for example, if you are dealing with a prolific offender you must see the child who continues to offend.

By seeing the child or young person before the given situation, it becomes easier to break down barriers and see behind the mask.


About Claudine Duberry
Claudine Duberry is Director and Founder of the Taking Positive Steps Foundation, as well as being one of the founding members of the London gang exit strategy, a team committed to providing a tailored support service to young people who are: on the county lines, involved in trap houses and human trafficking, or who are ostracised and excluded from society. The team also provides training and support to professionals (social workers, police, prison personnel) and families.

After being in the social work profession for over two decades, Claudine’s passion for working and engaging with children and young people remains as dynamic as ever.

Claudine has a wealth of experience working with children and young people who display challenging behaviour.

Claudine’s dedication has also earned her an exceptional reputation with the Metropolitan Police who have presented her with numerous commendations, including one of for

her dedication to the community and another for being proactive in the retrieval of firearms and live bullets from the community.

Through her award-winning programme, children and young people aged 9-16 years are encouraged to stand up as positive outstanding individuals, being aware that every action has a reaction. Consequential Thinking Mindset and Appropriate Behaviour and Gang Culture and Awareness programmes (both CPD accredited), which are taught in schools, address the importance of the 3R’s – Reasoning Respect and Responsibility – important social and life skills which many children lack.

1. Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions in England: 2015 to 2016. Department for Education 2016. Available at: https://dera.ioe. [last accessed July 2020]

2. Steward R. The Toxic Classroom: And What Can Be Done About It. 2020 Routledge.

3. Heightened risk of gang grooming for excluded children. Child Protection Company 2018. Available at: https://www. gang-grooming-for-excluded-children/ [last accessed July 2020]

4. What is County Lines? The Children’s Society. Available at: https://www. yN6gIVRevtCh1oYgLmEAAYASAAEgJ6R_D_BwE [last accessed July 2020]

5. Heeks M, Reed S, Tafsiri M, Prince S. The economic and social costs of crime. Second edition. The Home Office July 2018. Available at: https:// attachment_data/file/732110/the-economic-and-social-costs-of-crime- horr99.pdf [last accessed June 2020]

6. Youth Custody Costs: Written question – 144303. Available at: https:// statements/written-question/Commons/2018-05-15/144303/ [last accessed July 2020]

7. CAMHS – facts and figures. Local Government Association. Available at: camhs/child-and-adolescent-mental-health-and#:~:text=More%20 than%20338%2C000%20children%20were,access%20any%20 treatment%20at%20all. [last accessed July 2020]

8. Shame Intervention. The Temple Space. Available at: https://www. [last accessed July 2020]

9. Manning D. The heartbreaking faces of 10 London children reported missing since lockdown. MyLondon 14 April 2020. Available at: https:// children-18110076 [last accessed July 2020]


*Article originally appeared in Leadership Issues in Social Care. Leadership Issues in Social Care journal presents the best in thought-leadership and opinion, helping to shape future practice and share learning. The journal focuses on the implications of new legislation, emerging technology, case studies of best practice and more.

It is provided free of charge to Directors of Social Care in the UK and a subscription can be purchased here;