Reviews into lives of exploited teenagers find safeguarding failings
Independent reviews into two teen murders find ‘whole system change’ needed to tackle Northamptonshire’s child exploitation problem
By Sarah Ward
Dylan Holliday, stabbed to death in a Wellingborough underpass by another teenager, was known to have had links to a well known local criminal gang since the age of 11. Before he was killed, aged just 16, he had been involved in a police chase, and a month before his death had suffered a serious head injury after crashing his motorbike while under the influence of cannabis.
Alfie Pride was shot with a fire-arm aged just 14 by a rival gang member. Before his 16th birthday he was considered to be a ‘money mule’ (someone who uses their bank account to transfer illicit cash for others) and just six months before he fatally stabbed another teenager in Milton Keynes in November 2020, he was found with a large stash of class A drugs and cash. He was also known to carry a knife and had been stabbed by others.
Safeguarding reviews published yesterday reveal the boys had similar backgrounds of neglect, domestic abuse, cannabis use from a young age and school exclusion.
They were known to the authorities due to the trauma and abuse they suffered within the home and it was known that they were being criminally exploited.
In his early teens Dylan had been under a child protection plan and at the time of his crime Alfie was in the care of Northamptonshire County Council, living in supported accommodation in Milton Keynes.
The reviews look at the involvement of agencies such as the police and social services with the boys before the killings, assess the practices and make recommendations for improvements. There have been several such reviews in Northamptonshire in the past few years and they have become so common now that the agencies have stopped holding press conferences as was the usual practice to answer questions and instead issue pre prepared statements.
In the review into Dylan’s involvement with agencies before his death, there are very familiar themes and phrases which have been used before in earlier reviews. In both reviews and common to all previous reviews are criticism of information sharing between agencies, such as the police, youth offending services and social services.
The report says 'opportunities were missed’ there was ‘limited professional curiosity’ as well as ineffective analysis of risks posed to Dylan. (In the report Dylan is referred to as child BG).
“Despite a number of incidents of concern regarding child exploitation, the picture of BG who may have been associated with and what level of extra-familial risk BG may have experienced in different contexts of their life is unclear.
“There are numerous instances of limited multi-agency communication preventing recognition of extra-familiar harm risks where relevant agencies did not share or were not furnished with key information. MASH (multi agency safeguarding hub) risk assessments were often concluded with limited understanding of family history and aggregated child criminal exploitation risks for BG that had accumulated over time. Opportunities were missed to share information. Opportunities were missed to share information within the MASH to gather intelligence and understand potential extra-familial harm risks, such as police not sending in child protection notices to MASH, or assumptions made that other agencies were aware of concerns for BG.
It went on to say:
“Over the last 19 months of BG’s life, there was no formal activity undertaken to understand if BG had links to a local gang. Complex strategy meetings and mapping activity to consider associates and identify contexts in BG’s life where intervention and disruption was required did not occur.”
Instead the report says there was more of a concern about the risks from within the family and his volatile relationship with his mother, than the risks posed to Dylan from criminals in the area. He was known to hang around with older males and during lockdown in May 2020 had moved in with another man who was found to have financially exploited him.
The review also found there was a ‘level of overall normalisation of cannabis’ which he had been known to smoke since before he was a teenager. Authorities also failed to question where he sourced the illegal drug from.
Despite his home life problems, Dylan, who had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, was described as a ‘vibrant, sociable young person’ and always polite and respectful.
Before his death he had passed some GCSEs, teachers noting he was bright and could have improved his grades with better attendance.
Taken into care in his teens Alfie, who was 16 at the time of the killing, was moved between foster homes and care homes and at the time he committed the murder of Milton Keynes teenager Lewis Wenham he was living out of Northamptonshire in supported accommodation.
He missed his mother and his siblings and had told social workers he did not feel supported. The professionals who worked with him described him as ‘quite vulnerable’ and keen to fit in. He had a sense of humour and could be caring, kind and thoughtful.
Known to be involved with gangs, six months before his crime he was declared as a victim of modern slavery.
The review considered how the authorities in both Milton Keynes and Northamptonshire looked after him. While there were instances of good practice from most agencies and his school, the review found that:
“ . . .the multi-agency approach for Child O at key points was fragmented and there is no evidence of an overarching closely managed operational, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary risk management plan which the national panel report . noted was effective in local authorities seen to be using them.”
Northamptonshire’s social services - which at the time was run by the former county council - had moved Alfie out of Northamptonshire to get away from the gangs.
Alfie is now serving a life sentence.
Whole system change needed
A key recommendation from Dylan’s review is that a ‘whole systems change’ is needed by Northamptonshire agencies that deal with child criminal exploitation and that an ‘all encompassing child exploitation and extra familial harm strategy is needed. Reviewer Mick Brimms also recommends that a ‘very early intervention approach is needed’ and effective intervention is introduced. Disruption of gang activity is also advocated and more needs to be done to help practitioners working with children respond to reports of gang involvement.
The findings from Alfie’s review, which was carried out by Karen Perry, say that each Northamptonshire safeguarding partnership must develop a risk management pathway for vulnerable children who become involved in violence due to their involvement with gangs.
In the learning section Perry writes:
“Partnership working with vulnerable children who have police, social work and youth offending involvement due to offending and links to gangs is inherently complex. This complexity is exacerbated when a child is in care and moves placements between local authorities. It is important that practitioners and agency records are clear about which local authority is responsible for a child and that arrangements to ensure that information is shared promptly with that local authority are effective. Where children have moved areas to keep them safe from gangs it is important to have reciprocal information sharing arrangements between police forces if they are different in the host and home authorities.”
Northamptonshire’s long running gang problem
The issue of gang crime in Northants and vulnerable children being exploited into county lines is now several years old and if it is being measured on incidents and fatalities it is getting worse.
These reviews comes more than four years after a learning review by the Northmaptonhire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NSCP) into gangs prompted by the death of a teenager.
The review found that ‘there is a significant gang issue in Northamptonshire affecting a number of children and young people’ and that both hospitals were seeing a rise in children being admitted as a result of knife and gun crime.
However it pointed to a lack of leadership:
“This significant issue does not appear to be owned by any group within the county and requires an in-depth, co-ordinated, multi-agency piece of work to establish what services and resources are available.”
It recommended that a subgroup be set up about child exploitation and that the resources and services available in Northamptonshire to protect children at risk were mapped. (We have asked the NSCP if this was done).
The NSCP was chaired independently until 2019 but since then it has become collectively chaired by the police, social services and health. These are the same agencies that face criticism in the reviews.
Response from the agencies
Yesterday in an issued statement Northamptonshire Police Deputy Chief Constable Northamptonshire Police Ivan Balhatchet said:
“Since the events of August 2021, the police and partners have embarked on a project to introduce a co-located multi-agency Child Exploitation Hub which seeks to identify children at risk of CCE not just CSE which had been the case in the past. The report notes the importance of information sharing across all agencies in cases where gang activity is ongoing, and this new team will ensure fast and effective sharing of information in cases such as this one.
“As part of our wider prevention strategy the Force is now deploying data analysis software which aims to identify young people at risk of exploitation, and we continue to work alongside the Community Safety Partnerships to build problem profiles which allow all agencies to monitor children at risk.”
Executive member for children on North Northamptonshire Council Cllr Scott Edwards said:
“We recognise that knife crime is a blight on our communities and although a great deal has been done and is ongoing to make our streets safer, we accept that we must go further in tackling this concern.
“We need to further recognise when young people might become vulnerable to becoming gang members or be lured into criminality.
“There is no easy fix here, however we have a resolute commitment in making our communities better for all our residents, and particularly our young people, who are the future of North Northamptonshire.”
Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Stephen Mold said:
“As a community, we will only get a grip of knife crime and gang violence by working together. Robust enforcement and proactive policing are vital, and it is my job to hold the Chief Constable to account for that - but it will not work on its own. It will take partner organisations to jointly intervene early, to educate through youth and social provision, create a comfortable environment and deter people from criminality. Enforcement alone will never be enough.
“We must strengthen neighbourhood policing to build that engagement and strengthen that bond with local people to help create stronger communities. Much work is going on across all the organisations in the county to make Northamptonshire a safer place to be, and we must all ensure that is as co-ordinated and effective as possible. But even by working together, organisations won’t change this culture alone. We need to ensure that there is real engagement and collaboration that includes residents, faith groups, businesses, families – every section of the community - to accept the fact that violence isn’t the norm, isn’t inevitable, and play their part in finding a solution.”
Lack of transparency and discussion
As NN Journal has previously reported, a lot of discussion about serious youth violence, knife crime and criminal exploitation of children, happens behind closed doors with minutes of the meetings unpublished.
The county’s two community safety partnerships - which are responsible for coming up with strategies for how to protect communities - both meet in private and do not publish minutes. The North CSP was asked to provide information to Dylan’s safeguarding review about the data it had on child exploitation but it did not respond. While the CSPs meet in private the public and media are unable to hold them to account.
Northamptonshire police also currently refuse to make public its knife crime strategy and the county’s serious violence duty strategy being led by the police and crime commissioner Stephen Mold is not completed.
Meanwhile the issue of gangs, knife crime and teenage violence continue to increase, with two teenagers Rohan Shand and Kwabena Osei-Poku stabbed to death in Northampton in the past two months.
We have asked both the police and the police and crime commissioner’s office how many gangs they estimate are operating in the county and how many young people they think are being exploited by them.
We await a response.
*Our investigation into the numbers of social houses built in Northants was due to be published today but we have postponed it following the publication of these reviews. We will send you the housing report next week.