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When society fails to protect children, some will turn to serious crime

Penelope Gibbs
06 Jul 2017

When a 16 year old is sexually exploited we call them a child, and their abuser a monster.  When a sixteen year old commits a serious crime we call them a young person and a monster.

This week the Howard League won a case as to whether it was lawful for a teenager in Feltham Young Offender Institute to be kept in solitary confinement for nearly 24 hours a day.  The boy concerned is evidently very troubled and difficult to manage.  But there is no excuse for depriving him of social life or education.

One of the most shocking aspects of the case was the boy’s background:

“AB, who was born in 2001, has had a very difficult childhood, suffering emotional and physical abuse, and witnessing domestic violence between his parents, when he was very young. His father, who has drug and alcohol problems, and suffers from schizophrenia, took the 5-year-old AB and his sister hostage in the family home; there was a siege, and when the police entered, the father took an overdose in front of AB and collapsed. He also saw an uncle die from a drug overdose. He was placed on the Child Protection Register when 6 months old and again when 6 years old, because of the likelihood of emotional abuse. His parents could not care for him, and from the age of 7, he has been in a succession of residential placements which all broke down. A full Care Order was made in August 2015. AB has learning difficulties and has had a Statement of Special Educational Needs, SEN, since 2007, amended twice, most recently in 2015. He has been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, Conduct Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD”.

He has been in and out of prison since the age of 14.

Of course, this child should not commit crime and should not be violent to staff in prison, but he has clearly desperately needed therapeutic help from an early age.

AB’s background unfortunately mirrors that of other children who have committed serious crimes. The two teenage girls who killed Angela Wrightson, a vulnerable adult, were depicted as sadistic monsters in the press. The murder was indeed terrible, but again the children had suffered neglect and rejection.  A summary of the serious case review was recently published. It is frustrating in its opaqueness, but it is clear from the serious case review and the press coverage that the girls never got the parenting they needed, and ended up in care.

“Olivia” had a fractured, abusive and unstable upbringing. One of six sisters with different fathers, drug and alcohol abuse and physical violence were common in both her mother’s and father’s homes. She once returned to a care home with a black eye caused by her mother.

“The report highlighted a time when aged 12, Olivia had been in a serious car accident. She had to spend two weeks in hospital. Her father, on the one occasion he visited, was “unsupportive and complaining of the trouble she had caused him”. Her mother did not visit at all.

Yasmine’s parents abrogated all responsibility for her. The review described their parenting as “hostile, physically abusive and blaming”.

Both had alcohol problems and a history of domestic violence. They showed no insight into how their behaviour could affect their daughter.

At a meeting with social services, her mother said: “Yasmine has hurt me so much, it will be hard to forgive her.” At the time, Yasmine was 12.

On the night of the murder, the girls were not being closely supervised by their carers and ended up drinking six litres of cider with Angela and one had taken drugs – “blues”.  The serious case review concluded that the murder could not have been predicted or prevented. Probably true, but the girls were badly neglected and abused, so extreme violence was always a risk. The common thread between both these cases is not just that all the children were in care when they committed these crimes, but that it looks as if they may have been taken into care too late to protect them from serious psychological damage.