Anne Else's Letter from Elsewhere
Death of a teenager
On 22 October nineteen years ago, my younger son
Patrick died. He was eighteen, and he thought he was indestructible. But
he made one mistake, and he fell to his death.
At the time, I drove myself to think about what could
have made it even worse. He could have survived as nothing more than a
body that breathed in and out, everything that made him Patrick stripped
from him, and from us. He could have deliberately taken his own life. He
could have simply disappeared. Or he could have been killed by another
Every time I hear of a sudden teenage death, I think
of him and of what the parents are going through. This year, on
Patrick’s anniversary, Manaola Kaumeafaiva was stabbed to death outside
his school as he left a hip-hop dance competition. He was fourteen. He
did not even know the sixteen year old boy who killed him. It seems to
have been a completely random act, without any “provocation”. I really
hate the police using that word, just as I hate them describing attacks
as “cowardly”. Does that mean a non-cowardly attack (a really manly one)
is okay – especially if it was “provoked”?
The police said they would “need to give the parents
time to grieve” and would “in due course be speaking to them in some
detail about their son and gain an insight as to the sort of kid he
was". That seems oddly beside the point. How do they plan to gain an
insight into what sort of kid it was who killed him?
They may already know something about this kid. It’s
unlikely that he has had nothing to do with the police before. Patrick
was picked up by them once, for stealing (or rather trying to steal) a
copy of Playboy. I’m pretty sure he had shoplifted before, but hadn’t
been caught. Getting caught at sixteen, and being told that if he got
caught again after he turned seventeen he’d be prosecuted, was enough to
stop him for good.
But he was one of the vast majority of all young
people caught each year, the 80 percent who commit just the one official
offence. A tiny 10 percent of the “juvenile males” carry out at least
half of all the general crimes and 60-85 percent of the serious crimes
committed by young people.
If that’s the case, surely it should be possible to
identify them – not difficult, since presumably they quickly become
“well known to the authorities” – and make a determined effort to stop
them, before they kill someone?
So far are we as a society from being able to do
anything like this that it was not even possible to find a bed in a
youth justice facility for the boy arrested for the stabbing. He spent
five nights in police cells, appearing at the Youth Court every day. In
a bizarre echo of those endless phone calls where you are repeatedly
told where you are in the queue to talk to a human being, we were
informed that at his first appearance he was 10th on the waiting list
for a bed, by the 26th of October he was eighth, and by the 27th
(Friday) he was down to fifth. They did actually find him a bed that
day. God knows what else, if anything, they’ll be able to do for him.
Whatever it is, it’s too late.
We’ve had umpteen reports identifying the “risk
factors” that are likely to turn children into criminals. Here’s the
latest list: having few social ties; mixing with antisocial peers (some
contradiction here?); having family problems, particularly poor parental
monitoring of children and negative parent-child relationships
(including, of course, abuse – where we’re close to leading the world);
experiencing barriers to treatment, whether low motivation to change or
practical problems (like not being able to find any treatment – or even
a bed?); poor self-management and aggressiveness; performing and
attending poorly at school, lacking positive involvement in and feelings
about school (that could be a large group); lacking vocational skills
and a job (when they’re old enough to leave school – but by then it’s
usually too late); demonstrating anti-social attitudes that are
supportive of crime, theft, drug taking, violence, truancy and
unemployment (though that’s not yet a crime, is it); abusing drugs and
alcohol (helped along by booze barons setting out to attract young
drinkers); living in a neighbourhood that is poor, disorganised, with
high rates of crime and violence, in overcrowded and/or frequently
changing living conditions (otherwise known as poverty); and lacking
cultural pride and positive cultural identity (not helped, perhaps, by
being told you don’t exist).
No surprises there, then. But when the report (at
Chapter 6) goes on to recommend “early intervention across risk factors
as a key strategy”, it’s enough to make you weep. I could be quite wrong. The boy who killed Manaola,
then stabbed his friend, may have no connection with any of these “risk
factors”, except maybe living in a poor, disorganised neighbourhood. We
won’t know until he comes to trial. How many more teenagers will have
died at the hands of other teenagers by then?
30 October 2006