A GROWING number of Oxfordshire children are getting caught up in 'deplorable' gang culture, new statistics suggest.

Government figures indicate youth gang culture in the county is on the rise, with cases recorded by social services almost doubling in one year.

The number of vulnerable child assessments made by Oxfordshire County Council, of which ‘gangs’ was logged as a contributing factor, grew from 36 in March 2017 to 67 in March 2018.

A council spokesman said: "This is a national problem that is not unique to Oxfordshire.

"It is a deplorable abuse of vulnerable people by gangs and we do everything we can to confront it.

"Social workers work very closely with police officers to support the gathering of evidence so that police can arrest offenders and disrupt exploitation.

"Because of our experience of child sexual exploitation we were early in recognising this form of abuse as an entity and started to build up our knowledge to counteract this."

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The Department for Education published the statistics on Thursday, stating of the national picture: "Some less common [factors] have seen larger increases in percentage terms, though they remain relatively uncommon overall - particularly trafficking and gangs."

Nationally the number of assessments linked to gangs rose by 2,080.

A minority of the 6,980 children seen by Oxfordshire social services in 2017-18 were assessed more than once, so the figures do not necessarily mean 67 individual children were linked to gangs.

Regardless, there has been a significant rise from previous years - a negligible number in 2015 and just nine in 2016.

In the past year the prevalence of gangs and related knife crime - particularly in the capital - appears to have hit unprecedented highs.

However, The Abingdon Bridge, which offers counselling and support for people aged 13-25, has not picked up on a gang problem in Oxfordshire.

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The charity's chair of trustees Chris Bryan, former headteacher of St Birinus School in Didcot, said: "We are always conscious that what's happening in London will eventually hit us, but at this stage we are not aware of an increase in gang behaviour and certainly not, thankfully, knife crime.

"As far as we are concerned it is not an issue young people in the South and Vale area are concerned about.

"This tends to be an issue in urban areas rather than rural locations - my guess, without any evidence at all, is that this [rise] is more likely to be in Oxford and Banbury than elsewhere.

"We are certainly not picking up any evidence of gang behaviour in our patch.

"You also have to bear in mind that these figures are 12 months old - you only have to have one or two issues for figures to spike."

Last month an Oxford Crown Court judge warned of a ‘storm’ of knife crime, as he jailed a 16-year-old for a stabbing in a Cowley park in May 2018.

Judge Peter Ross told the court the boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, knifed a man in a bid to 'impress' fellow gang members.

On Saturday police appealed for witnesses after a 15-year-old boy was attacked in Hardwick Park, Banbury, on March 28.

The teenager was hit and chased with a knife by three 'youths' during the ordeal, and suffered racial abuse and death threats.

A 14-year-old boy from Banbury was arrested in connection with the attack.

Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, made up of representatives of statutory agencies, works to protect young people in the county.

Its procedures manual dedicates a chapter to gangs, stating: "Defining a gang is difficult.

"They tend to fall into three categories: peer groups, street gangs and organised crime groups.

"It can be common for groups of children and young people to gather together in public places to socialise and although some peer group gatherings can lead to increased antisocial behaviour and low level youth offending, these activities should not be confused with the serious violence of a street gang."

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In contrast it said street gangs are a 'discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group's identity.'

Thames Valley’s police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld has previously raised concerns about vulnerable youngsters, claiming children as young as 13 had been recruited by drug gangs in the region.

Social services record factors contributing to a child's needs, and can tally more than one factor per child.

The county council said 'being persistent and building a relationship with a child' is 'absolutely essential' to tackling gang exploitation.

Figures for most factors in Oxfordshire remained constant between 2017 and 2018.

There were decreases in domestic violence, neglect, sex abuse, alcohol, drug and physical disability cases.

Slight increases were seen in factors of mental health, self-harm, learning disabilities, and child sexual exploitation.

Larger increases were seen in young carer cases, which rose from 295 to 381, and emotional abuse cases, which rose from 944 to 1,118.

The number of unaccompanied asylum seeker cases grew from 27 to 38, and girls affected by female genetic mutilation increased from seven to 13.

Previous years recorded negligible numbers of children linked to trafficking, but that rose in 2018 to seven.