Say the words multi-agency, holistic and early intervention and most people’s eyes glaze over. Unfortunately these are the answers to serious knife crime. I felt a depressing sense of deja vu as I read a recent report on Croydon’s (south London) most vulnerable teenagers. The trajectory of their lives is so similar to children in trouble ten and twenty years ago. And we are still letting those children down, treating them as individuals to be punished rather than victims of poor backgrounds who need support.
Of the 60 children the report is about, five have died (three stabbed to death) and 23 are now in secure units and/or in custody. 14 are living in the family home – a very small proportion compared to middle class teenagers of the same age. All the 55 still alive are 15-20 years old now.
The tragedy of the report is that the troubles of these children were known to authorities for many years. Well meaning workers tried to support the family and the child, but the system failed. All the help was too short term, sporadic and “bitty”. I recommend the report, alongside the serious case review of “Chris” by Nicky Hill. A few observations:
- More than half the children had come to the attention of social services by the age of five, partly because they came from families who faced difficulties. 72% of fathers were absent, 42% of fathers were the alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse. 27% of mothers were absent, 27% noted to have substance misuse issues, 23% alcohol misuse, and 22% had mental health difficulties. 37% of children had a parent or sibling with criminal convictions, 15% of the parents were known at the time to the Probation Service and 28% of families were recorded as homeless at some point in their child’s upbringing.
- The families often sought help but didn’t get the right help at the right time. When their children starting acting out they found it hard to engage with professionals: “It seemed that some [parents] had lost trust in the system and felt blamed for their child’s behaviour, and for some, the vast array of professionals now involved was difficult to manage and on occasions caused confusion as to the best course of action to take”.
- The trauma experienced by the children when young or as teenagers was never really identified and addressed. Over a quarter of the children suffered the death of a parent. And “one child highlighted that 4 of his extended family had died as a result of gang violence, they had all lost at least one friend they were close to and referred to witnessing traumatic events: “I’ve seen some terrible things” (Male 17). These children told us they had not received any sort of bereavement or other counselling to deal with the trauma they felt”.
- Agencies understood the children and their families needed help and did give it. But there was no long term plan and no long term support.
- As teenagers nearly all the children were on the edge of or in gangs. One of the strongest “pulls” into gangs was the sense of belonging and of being part of a “family”. Though young, the local teenagers interviewed for the report were fatalistic about rising levels of youth violence.
- The issue of race and potential discrimination looms over the whole report. 72% of the children were from BAME backgrounds with Black (Caribbean) boys particularly over-represented. One boy aged 17 asks “Why are so many black kids from Croydon in prison?” This child’s perception was that black children appear to be treated differently by the criminal justice system.
- “The issue of race and ethnicity was a significant feature throughout the interviews with parents and family members, many of whom believed their child received a poor service because they were black. An aunt of a child that had been killed asked: “If white children were being killed, do you think the government would care more & do something about it?”
The pity is people do care (“practitioners described sometimes being consumed with worry, about children on their caseload, outside of work”) and the government is doing something about it. But no-one is really changing these children’s lives for the better. The government’s public health strategy to combat serious violence is currently no more than a document and measures they are introducing – such as knife crime asbos and more stop and search – are unlikely to reduce deaths and injuries. This report calls strongly for troubled children to be given more consistent, long term support when they are young – to prevent them becoming troubled and troublesome teenagers.