Order for £10.89 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Mini & Me, By Michael Cooper. Ziji, £11.99

 

It was one of those Cathy Come Home TV moments: 38 years ago, Franc Roddam's Inside Story documentary followed the fate in the care system of a baby-faced, articulate, compelling 11-year-old arsonist, Michael "Mini" Cooper. The programme touched a public nerve and prompted a national debate about how we dealt with youngsters whose parents weren't up to the job.

Mini & Me provides an update, and some perspective. There's no happy ending. Cooper spent the Seventies in secure children's homes and, as many do, ended up in the criminal justice system. His addiction to fire continued, and prison spells and dislocation to the margins of society inevitably followed. There have been ups – working as a magician – and downs.

He tells it all, without self-pity. He certainly writes well – it was his obvious but anarchic intelligence that made such an impact in the original documentary. Yet there is still that authentic note of anger, as when he recaptures the raw frustration of those early years, when his brutal ex-Army father and his distant, out-of-control, religious mother both colluded with the authorities to wash their hands of their son. Cooper's response was to set fire to the family home.

As a society, we empower the state to intervene to take children away from dysfunctional or dangerous family homes for their own protection. That must be right, though the threshold for such action seems to fluctuate year to year. But what we nearly always fail to ask is why the words "care home" have become synonymous with abuse and failure.

Mini & Me includes accounts of occasional kindly individuals working in the care system but the overall picture it presents is pretty bleak. If anyone doubted that childhood trauma causes lifelong dislocation, they should read this book. So, too, if they believe there are any easy answers to traumatised young lives. Indeed, it should be on the curriculum for trainee social workers and child-protection officers. It affords a rare opportunity, to echo the title of that original 1975 documentary, to hear the inside story.

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