Action for Children has come across children as young as eight who are already beginning to be involved on the fringes of drug dealing, and who by their teens are involved in fetching and carrying and taking sometimes violent retribution against those who cross their bosses.
Now the charity is adopting a novel recruitment strategy for its latest project. "One month you're getting arrested by the police. The next month you're in a team meeting," explains children's services director for Scotland, Paul Carberry.
"We could advertise this until the cows come home and we won't get the right person. But the phrase 'community assets' gets bandied about a lot. I believe in that and this is putting it into practice to change behaviour and bring about improvements in society."
He is talking enthusiastically about a project recently launched by Action for Children, in association with Strathclyde Police's Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). The partnership is also backed by Glasgow's Social Work department and Glasgow Community and Safety Services.
"Young lads are involved with organised crime from an early age," Carberry explains. "Guys turn up on schemes with big cars and suits and say go and beat up so and so, hold this, take that, slash his tyres – and you'll get money for it."
The thinking behind the new organised crime service is simple, he says: "Each young person we divert could be another foot soldier, fuelling industrial scale drug use, trafficking, intimidation and threats."
The idea is to offer alternatives to the glamour and the income available through organised crime. This means giving young would-be criminals other opportunities, and possible jobs through schemes such as Action for Children's widely praised Youthbuild project. There are tie-ins in preparation with major Scottish SPL football clubs, the St Andrew's Sporting Club and the BBC – whose Children in Need fund has backed the scheme. It also has Scottish Government match-funding, although the overall sum is a modest £240,000.
Mr Carberry has no truck with any critics who complain perks are being offered to young people who offend. "There is a clear recognition by all the agencies involved that these are vulnerable, really deserving people who we are probably not doing enough for. Investing in the child is investing in communities," he says.
The other controversial aspect is the use of former troublemakers as staff members. The idea is to use young adults who have advanced just a few steps up the criminal tree from the ones they will be working with. "The problem becomes the solution," Mr Carberry says. "Social workers can be daunted by some of this, especially working with someone whose family members are involved in serious crime. The people who front it need the right attitude and skills."
It would be easy to be intimidated, he says: "That is why we are headhunting, not doing ordinary recruiting."
The first young people involved will be recruited in January, identified by police or social workers, but in some cases a mother, a grandmother or an aunt will come forward, because they don't want their relative going down a familiar path.
Chief Superintendent John Cuddihy, head of Serious and Organised Crime (SOCA) and Counter Terrorism says the police can't continue to behave as if investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating is their only role. "Part of our strategy is to direct resources towards diversion. If we want fewer individuals aspiring to the higher echelons of the criminal community, we need to collectively offer youngsters better opportunities in life."
The scheme will begin in an area of Glasgow, because like any employer, organised crime groups tend to have a geographic employment pool, Mr Cuddihy says. He backs the recruitment approach of Action for Children. "That's what will make it work. These kids can see someone who's walked the walk and can talk the talk, and who has turned their life around."
Nobody denies the approach isn't without its risk – Action for Children's trial project for the scheme in Inverclyde ran into problems as one of the staff members recruited committed an offence. But Mr Cuddihy echoes his charity partner in describing the benefits. "If we work with the right people, they become positive mentors for the next generation of possible foot soldiers."
Spotting those who will become influential in organised crime in future years is an art, but there is a pattern, he says. "We will be responding to a sense of escalation in their activity, and you will often get a reference from the community in terms of how they are portrayed. It is often the cuter ones, the ring-leaders who may not get caught, but have a strength of character, you can see they are giving themselves standing in the community."
The need for some to be sent to prison will not go away, he says: "There are some people in the community who are bad, and those people we have to incarcerate."
But he says many might be surprised to learn how often young people are simply looking for an income – a chance to pay for clothes, a present or stand a round with their own money. They will choose a completely different life, he insists. But that choice has to be there.
Boxing promoter Tommy Gilmour, managing director of St Andrew's Sporting Club, believes in the idea: "This initiative could play an important role in helping some of the country's most vulnerable young people to find direction and transform their lives," he said. "By introducing young people from difficult backgrounds to the world of competitive sport, we hope to show an alternative way of life – built on dedication, focus and commitment."
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