UK Justice for Youthful Offenders

Suffer the Little Children

We love our children, don’t we? In Britain we are fortunate to be able to give them so much more than previous generations of parents who lived for the most part in traditional, extended family units. Lord knows, things have changed. We move home to access the best schools, send our little darlings to pre-school establishments, save for them with specially developed investment bonds and generally cut the ties with the past. We want them to have the best.
And for those children with problems, there’s Child Line – always someone at the end of the telephone who will be able to wave a magic wand and cure all the ills which beset disaffected youth. Well, to pass on a referral to Social Services teams, anyway. Children’s services have become a highly developed social strategy in which to catch the unfortunate little children whose parents offer such poor life chances – at best neglectful, at worst wicked and abusive. Watch the screen, children, help is out there. It must be. The government tells us that it is committed to the education and welfare of its future electorate. Suffer the little children.
Well, let’s look at what happens to children who need help. There are names which are recorded in the summaries of public enquiries, who have died as a result of failings within the system. We shake our heads in dismay at the ineptitude of social workers, police officers, health professionals, every time someone slips through the net. We tut tut at the inadequacies of failing parents when we meet our decent friends and neighbours in the community. Who could harm an innocent child? Why would parents leave their babies unattended and neglected while they go out for a meal? It’s hard to conceive of. Why do some children seem to have no respect for the communities in which they live, commit crime, terrorise the elderly, run around in gangs and generally wreak havoc on society?
Hang on – those aren’t the children we mean, are they? Those children are not like ours – they have no innocence, no morals, no code of behaviour, no right to expect us to care about them. They aren’t our children.
In my city, as elsewhere in this country, children such as these have become a problem. They are the new underclass and, it would seem, responsible for a significant proportion of society’s ills. Draconian measures do not appear to be effective in dealing with the ASBO generation, the hoodie-wearing creatures who roam our streets and our nightmares, attacking family values and structures in their wake.
Some children are taken into the care of the local authorities. They are placed in residential units at a time when they are distressed, lonely, afraid and upset. They do not have the emotional wherewithal to deal with sudden separation from their homes and families. It would be a hard task even for an adult. They scream and shout. They lash out at the strangers who are suddenly taking care of them, and they throw things. My children would have struggled and they have had the benefit of stability, consistent care and maturity. How much more difficult for a child who has been abused or neglected to cope with the sudden loss, an imposition of boundaries where none have been, a total change in environment, culture, expectations and adult influences? There is a policy of zero tolerance in residential units. This, coupled with human nature and perhaps a lack of understanding on the part of staff, can so easily result in the criminalisation and labelling of young people who are, in reality, simply scared and lonely.
These are the children I spend my professional life with. They are the criminals, the drug addicts, the truants and the adolescent alcoholics who fill the pages of the hate-driven national tabloids. And they are our children.
For the average citizen, a perusal through the pages of the daily media reports represents a frightening catalogue of youth crime, knife-wielding thugs, spitting their own peculiar form of venom at everyone they encounter. How did this state of affairs ever develop in a country where the innocence of children and their welfare is an acknowledged priority?
Take for example the case of a group of roughly fourteen young people who were responsible several months ago for the death through beating of a local man. It was a horrible incident – the memory of the CCTV footage I watched many times over during the trial will always remain with me. The children were involved to varying degrees, some of them seen clearly to have delivered fatal stamps and kicks, blows with iron bars; others stood by or threw sticks in the general direction of the victim. The concept of young people behaving like this is abhorrent and terrifying and was keenly felt within the local community. But the final scenes did not play out in isolation. The man died as a direct result of a series of unfortunate events over the weeks leading up to the ultimate confrontation. And although a local adult was clearly seen on the footage to have pushed his way through the group of police officers in attendance, delivering at least one vicious kick at the victim’s body as he lay dying in the street, no charges were ever brought against him. None were brought against the victim’s partner who had chased a thirteen year old girl earlier in the evening and threatened to cut her throat with a meat cleaver, who had thrown the same meat cleaver at the child’s head, causing a wound to her ear. Earlier in the evening the victim had been the aggressor and this too had been captured by the CCTV operators. They did not call the police until events took a turn against the adults. Too late. The delay cost the victim his life, his partner her peace of mind and five children their youth and liberty. The cost to society is greater, deeper and cannot be measured.
Much is made of the increase of violence within this generation of children, and indeed, there does seem to be a steady rise of violent crime appearing in the courts. What of the neglected children, one of them I know who is a thirteen year old alcoholic, whose parents allow him to wander the streets late at night, begging adults to purchase drink from the local shops? What of the adults who think it is amusing to enter into the collusion that feeds and sustains his addiction, who agree to make the purchases on his behalf? What of the local woman who agrees to do so and charges him extra for her services, in order to fund her own drug addiction? What of the police officer who attends the scene when he finally passes out on the pavement, arrests him and throws him into the back of a police van where he takes the opportunity to beat him senseless with his police baton in the privacy of his vehicle? The police officer who tells the boy not to bother making a complaint because, and I quote, “I can do whatever I like to you and I will get away with it”
We do not love our children, as a group within our community, only the ones to whom we gave birth. They are the exceptions. I would go further. I would say that we have become a child-hating society, and that we feed the hatred daily via the newspapers and social commentary of the media. And the truth of the matter is that these children, the demons of our underclass, have become the focus of our fear because at some deep fundamental human level we recognise that the responsibility for them lies with us. It is our fault that parenting has become so difficult for some of us, that individuals opt out and lash out to preserve a safe distance between us and them. If we show our children, as a group within our society, no respect, then we can expect them to behave as all oppressed groups behave. They will recognise their lack of status and fight against social and political vilification with the only weapons they have. Respect breeds respect; demonisation breeds only disillusionment, frustration and fear.