INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK

2 MAY 2002
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OPINION

The real juvenile crime is official arrogance

We have heard a lot about “feral” child gangs who terrorise city estates. Names like Ruff Riders and Madman Crew are becoming familiar bogeys. The Damilola Taylor suspects shrug off their previous thefts and assaults as “little crime and stuff like that”. Horrified, we learn how young children join gangs for protection and prey on still younger ones. We are told by exasperated officers that streetwise children of 11 sneer at the police, treat arrest as a joke and carry their brief’s phone number with them like any old lag.

We are appalled; more worryingly, Government seems to be as panicked, amazed and bumbling as the most innocent old lady in Edwardian lace. Not knowing whether to seem tough or tender, it settles for trite and trivial: threatening alternately to march vandals to cash machines, take away child benefit, put police in schools, quintuple child prisons, and pour in “resources”, which always seems to mean a rapidly vandalised leisure centre. Some of these ideas are quietly dropped, some applied at half-throttle, some vanish into a vortex of committees.

Calm is needed. Damilola Taylor’s death was terrible, although every indication is that it was not meant as a murder but a bravado stabbing. Certainly it should make us aware of young gangs, but we should also remember something else: we outnumber these wild children by far. Mainstream, law-abiding, taxpaying, voting families are a vast majority. It does nobody any favours to get hysterical about bad kids, because it actually reinforces their illusion of being unstoppable. The truth is that if you lined up all the persistent, hardcore, contemptuous young offenders in the country they would be a tiny worried group confronted with the affluent ruling majority. Squeaks of terror are inappropriate. These kids are controllable and, just as importantly, redeemable. They are part of the new generation, and an ageing country needs them. These are not vermin or scum: however damaged and angry they remain human souls, individual intelligences, a potential resource. They deserve, as the late Queen Mother would put it, respect!

Stop ripping up the newspaper. I wholly agree that part of that respect should consist in cracking down hard. Low tolerance of mayhem is a way of showing that you value a child and expect better. I am all in favour of putting police in schools — preferably tactful, ethnically diverse police with a sense of humour. I am not sure that the timid proposal to do this only at a head’s request makes sense: what head wants to be seen asking for such back-up? Maybe all schools should have it, with a lighter touch where it suits.

It is also clear that youth justice needs ruthless reform. It is ridiculous to treat children as if they were adults. It should be possible to take a boy or girl off the street sharply, and away from useless parents into benevolent but firm custody combined with serious full-time education and pastoral care. Addicts should have spaces in residential rehab centres. Did you know that there is only one such centre for children in Britain? There should, in short, be a seamless, universal system to demonstrate to the most dangerous children that they are certainly not unstoppable. Not hated, not despised, not feared, not doomed — but not untouchable either. And it should be a quick decisive pounce. To let an emotionally stunted 14-year-old stall the system and roam around on bail like an accountant on a fraud charge is crazy. The reason we do it is that we are rightly ashamed of the depraving conditions in which we lock children up. If the conditions were more constructive, we might think differently. And so would the parents: plenty of mothers echo the desperation of the one who told this paper yesterday that for years GP, social services and psychologists had been a “brick wall” as her son ran amok.

As for those who are not yet lethal, but heading that way — do you know how bad child mental health provision is in Britain? Children who have seen killings and beatings and rapes and drugged insanity need more than lectures. Children bullied since babyhood need proper adult help. When parents fail there must be other adults there for the children, long before they reach the stage of needing to be locked up.

Sometimes there are. Consider “Kids Company”, a voluntary organisation which runs The Arches, in the heart of the toughest part of Peckham. The “club” was founded five years ago by the psychotherapist Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Children come there of their own accord, to find a square meal, shelter, sleep if they need it, basic leisure facilities, and medical or psychiatric help. Above all they find sober adults who care about them. On Christmas Day The Arches is full of children who have brought themselves — and baby siblings — for some semblance of normal happiness. The founder is passionate about the need to meet such basic human requirements before pouring in “resources”. They don’t, she says, “need swimming pools or libraries. They just need good adult support.”

Ms Batmanghelidjh knows what she is talking about. Her professional analysis is clear. A child exposed to chaos and neglect and violence will adapt. “Unprotected children have no choice but to protect themselves. They cannot walk away from their carers but they can ‘absent themselves’ by shutting down their capacities to feel. Emotional numbness becomes a useful tool.” This numbness becomes coldness. “Sustained absence of feelings nurtures dangerous human beings who believe they are pain-free and that others are equally emotionally void. Why did the victim’s pleadings not register with the offender? In large measure it is because, from the offender’s point of view, the act of violence was emotionally void. Its sole purpose was the acquisition of goods. The perpetrator has grown to despise vulnerability.”

Exhortation and threats are useless by now. “Without an appetite for freedom or a future, our children are powerfully suicidal. They have nothing to lose. Our current penal system assumes there is a criminal who would be upset at losing freedom and being prevented from enjoying life. These emotionally cold children live in prisons of their own making and as such they feel no fear or loss.” It can be reversible, but she observes quietly that when they do regain a capacity to feel, “the return is a painful journey”.

Wonderful work. Crime Concern inspectors applaud The Arches as a shining example. But what is this? Kids Company is threatened with closure: planning authorities have given it notice to move on, no new premises are offered, Government pays it nothing, and police have only recently entered a “dialogue” with it. Ms Batmanghelidjh — who has more scars and breakages than wet liberal illusions — would like nothing more than guaranteed police back-up to remove the few children who are impossibly disruptive, and would also applaud a system which locked them up promptly and demonstrated to them that they are not beyond control. A combination of her humane vision and national support would be a revolution.

But “the voluntary sector suffers traditionally from a lack of respect”, she says sadly. Public money coming into deprived areas is controlled by statutory bodies which may do a lot less good (remember the clowns who let down Victoria Climbie) but which are “official” and tick the right boxes. Such money rarely reaches voluntary clubs and shelters. They live from hand to mouth, almost as desperate and ignored as their young clients.

That — not some unconquerable evil — is the core of the problem. Wise, practical local initiatives at ground level are ignored by a centralist, bureaucratic government machine. Dogged rescue work goes unrewarded, or even persecuted. You see it again and again — in addicts’ shelters whose managers end up in prison (as in the Wintercomfort case), in sports groups choked by regulation, in the church-mouse poverty of youth clubs. Ministers stride around looking for big showy answers written in the stars, while all the time help is squeaking vainly at their feet. Yet communities can heal themselves with only modest help, provided that their efforts are encouraged and defended.

So take the child benefit away from poor hopeless mothers if you must, Mr Blair. But give it straight to Kids Company, and let others like it spring up, to feed and love and guide lost children home to us. Give the people some respect.

 

Libby Purves
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,482-282899,00.html

 

 

 

 

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