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August 18, 2020

Teenage murder – the human cost of county-lines

“I feel like all this could have been avoided,” said Jada, the mother of murdered teenager Jaden Moodie. “No parent should have to bury their child before themselves.”

How can we prevent our children being murdered? Mid lockdown there seemed to be a ceasefire on the streets of London. Even those knee deep in risky behaviour were staying indoors. But recently the murders in London have started again. Many young men have been killed in the last two months in serious youth violence though, thankfully, only one child – Jeremy Meneses-Chalarca, 17, who was stabbed near Oxford Street at 5.38pm on 8 August. Every time a child is murdered there is a serious case review. When published in full they make sobering reading. John Drew, a friend and colleague, wrote the review of Jaden Moodie, a fourteen year old who was deliberately knocked off the moped he was riding in East London and stabbed multiple times in January 2019 by a group of young people (of whom only one has been convicted).

The review makes for a depressing read, partly because the death seemed a tragedy waiting to happen, partly because Jaden’s family and professionals were actively trying to help him. He was not neglected, nor off radar. The review is also depressing because there were so many echoes of a previous serious case review by Nicky Hill, on CJ Davis, who was gunned down on an East London street in 2017.

Both children had loving parents who struggled hard to find and engage with the help they thought their son needed. Both mothers tried to get rehoused and relocate their sons, to get them out of a toxic environment. Jaden was brought up in Nottingham but his mother was so worried about the influences on him there that she moved to London, where she sofa-surfed in one relative’s house while Jaden stayed with his grandmother. Unfortunately, Jaden got deeper into trouble in London, particularly into drug dealing. John Drew picked out some crucial events, where things seem to go wrong for Jaden.

  1. The transition to secondary school was very problematic. How often do children start going “off the rails” having had a difficult transition to secondary school? The change is too stark for many – from a small, nurturing environment to a big, alien one. Like CJ, Jaden was excluded from school. At his first secondary school, Jaden was accused of bullying other pupils and subject to several short term exclusions. His mother decided to home-school him, but struggled to combine this with paid work. The move to London brought a new school and more trouble. The last straw for Jaden’s London secondary school was the discovery of a Snapchat video in which he posed in his school uniform with what looked like a gun. John Drew felt the school was right to exclude. Whether or not they were, the educational damage had been done much earlier. We need to completely reform how the transition to secondary school works, and how vulnerable boys can be supported. The seeds of much serious youth violence are planted by an unsuccessful transition.
  2. Housing needs to get better integrated into the decision-making process. Both CJ and Jaden’s families were waiting to be re-housed when the boys were murdered and they’d been waiting a while. It appears that, too often, families with children at high risk of criminal exploitation are treated as just another number on the list. In the case of Jaden, his social housing provider in Nottingham had information (that Jaden had suspected drug debts and had apparently been involved with a gang) which everyone needed to know, but was shared too late. Both mothers thought they needed to physically remove their sons from bad influences. I absolutely understand the motivation, but wonder whether, and in what circumstances, relocation works? It makes intuitive sense, but maybe relocation can exacerbate the insecurity of these children, and make them more susceptible to grooming? We need more research.
  3. Jaden was definitely on the radar of social and youth justice services, as CJ had been. Many meetings were held, and practitioners involved. But maybe too many practitioners (at least three) were trying to engage directly with Jaden and his family? I remember reading about the innovative team around the worker programme (was it Design Council?) whereby specialists coalesced around a practitioner who worked with a family intensively. It was designed to prevent families and children having to engage with a chain of different practitioners, all with seemingly different agendas and ways of working. What happened to that idea? Whether it worked or not, we need to find a way of reducing the number of people a stressed family has to engage with.
  4. As with CJ, you cannot say that the police and justice system were unduly punitive. On many occasions there seemed to be evidence that Jaden had got hold of a gun, or what looked like a gun, and he was found with a knife. But the only criminal sanctions he got were a caution and a youth referral order. Not that more involvement with the criminal justice system would have done any good – the sanctions he received didn’t change the trajectory of his risk-taking behaviour. As ever, it appears that the drivers to offending and exploitation were outside the criminal justice system and needed to be addressed outside it.
  5. John Drew does not say that Jaden’s murder could have been prevented, but points to moments that could have been seized on – particularly an incident in October 2018 when Jaden was found by Dorset Police in a cuckoo house in Bournemouth with adults and with a quantity of drugs and cash. Dorset police thought Jaden was being exploited as part of a county lines operation. He was interviewed in custody and, on release, driven all the way back to London. John Drew thinks that moment offered a potential opportunity, when Jaden was feeling vulnerable and out of his depth, to persuade him to open up about his exploitation. But nothing was done immediately – the follow up was steady rather than fast. There are charities (Divert, St Giles etc) which help children who have been detained in custody to access services and support to turn their lives around. They are experienced in dealing with children at risk of exploitation. But neither of the agencies involved – Dorset Police and Waltham Forest Children’s Services – knew how to access and use these services. Children should only be detained by police as a last resort. But if they are, these diversion services should be used to make best use of the “golden moment”.
  6. Child criminal exploitation has been common since the days of Dickens, but children’s services are still not designed to deal swiftly and holistically with children at risk of it. If a young child is at risk of serious parental abuse, they get removed from the home quickly. But the signs of criminal exploitation are more subtle and like a submarine – what people see on the surface is likely to represent only a fraction of the risky activity. John Drew points out that no-one mapped out who Jaden was in contact with and how the exploitation was actually happening. Was he a member of a “gang” and was that connected to his death? Its not clear. But if we are to protect these children, we need to learn how to protect them from the men who seek to exploit them.
  7. Jaden’s mother feels angry that local services did not provide more support. Clearly either trust broke down or was never there in the first place. Its not clear what went wrong or why. Yet practitioners were keen to engage Jaden’s mother Jada and she to get help. Again, we need better research. What makes for a successful relationship between a practitioner and the family of a criminally exploited adolescent? There is no road-map. But we need one if we are to protect such children.

It’s really worth reading the serious case review in full. What’s particularly sad is that there’s a pattern to these true stories of criminally exploited children and we haven’t worked out how to break the cycle yet. And also that many children in prison were probably also exploited, but we didn’t recognise it when we punished them.

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