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Report Shows Unawareness Of Youth Towards Criminal Exploitation

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A research report launched by Queen’s has found that despite high levels of organised crime in local areas and the elevated rates of exposure to violence in the community, the term ‘child criminal exploitation’ was new to many young people.

Pictured at the launch event are (L-R): Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice & SRO of the Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme; Stephen Quigley, Education Authority; Adele Brown, Director of the Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme; and Dr Colm Walsh, Queen’s University.
The report, ‘From Contextual to Criminal Harm: Young People’s Perceptions and Experiences of Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) in Northern Ireland’, explored young people’s perceptions and experiences of criminal exploitation. The study was led by Dr Colm Walsh, Research Fellow from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s.

The research was carried out over a four-month period, from December 2021 – April 2022, with a total of 44 young people (28 male and 16 female between the age of 16-18) across Northern Ireland taking part in in-depth focus group interviews.

The research found that young people were exposed to a range of harms in the home, in schools, and in their communities. Combined, these harms made some young people more vulnerable to criminal exploitation.

Exposure to violence, including being witness to and/or a victim of it, appeared to be a normal part of life for these young participants, and had become so normalised that even when they had experienced harm, they often failed to recognise their victimisation.

When asked about specific examples of when they had experienced (directly or indirectly) violence related harm, every young person could provide examples and these were situated within the context of their local areas, often within a few yards of their own homes. One participant described their first experience of higher harm violence when they were only 4 years old.

Other findings include:

Paramilitarism was intimately connected to CCE.
A number of young people had been actively groomed to engage in criminality over a prolonged period of time.
Others were engaged in a more agile way, exploited for a particular purpose and for a specific period of time, with the spring 2021 riots foremost in several focus group members’ minds.
A minority of young people living in specific areas believed that paramilitaries provided a protective function and that they were generally safer with those networks in place.
Boys and young men were generally believed to be more actively involved in violent criminality and that young women were actively engaged in more subtle forms of abuse and exploitation.
Few young people had ever approached another adult for help, despite most having had at least one experience when they felt at significant risk of harm.
The study concluded that there is a need to enhance safeguarding for youths vulnerable to criminal exploitation.

Speaking about the research findings, Dr Walsh commented: “This is an important but sobering study. This is the first study of its kind in the NI context documenting the perceptions and experiences of child criminal exploitation. Their voices illustrate the ways that some children and young people are being failed by a range of statutory agencies and how these missed opportunities to protect, provide others with opportunities to exploit for their own criminal gain.”

The research was funded by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality & Organised Crime Programme. The Programme works across Northern Ireland to prevent and reduce paramilitary and criminal harm and violence. It invests in over 80 projects, delivered across the Executive by statutory agencies and partners in the voluntary and community sector.

Commenting on the event, Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme Director, Adele Brown said: “Violence prevention is at the heart of our programme – we need good data and evidence to create projects that work. Today’s report on child criminal exploitation is an important first for Northern Ireland. It shows how, a generation on from the peace agreements, young people in Northern Ireland are still being exploited and manipulated by paramilitaries and criminals. This report gives young people a voice and we need to listen carefully to what they are telling us if we are to break the cycle of intergenerational harm.

“We’re delighted that so many people from so many sectors have joined us today to support this work and to discuss how collectively we can do more to address this complex problem.”