Lock up your daughters

Don't be lulled by the sisterly hug - these girls in residential care have done their bit for the alarming rise in female violence. Report by David Cohen. Photographs by David Modell

The group of teenage girls lounge languidly on a sofa, arms and legs entwined. They suck what they call "horny tablets", ginseng bought from the Ann Summers sex shop. "It makes me want sex," announces Diane, popping her third pill, her face set in a blissful, emphatic smile. "Go on, Diane, tell us about the time you did it on the sports field," prompts Karen. "What? The time I came back with mud all over my arse?" The girls shriek with raucous adolescent laughter. Soul music blares from the boombox. They appear to all the world like average teenagers indulging in their favourite pastime: bragging about sex.

But these residents of Sunny Oak - a community home in Liverpool for girls who have been placed in care - are anything but average. Karen has a criminal record for smashing 15 cars with her bare feet, doing pounds 30,000-worth of damage in one night. Sharon is a "speed freak" (drugs, not cars) with a violent temper who "beats the shit" out of anyone who upsets her, male or female. Diane long ago dropped out of school to major in underage sex and illicit drugs.

They are bad girls. Bad, bad girls. The type you wouldn't want your children to cross, even on a good day. The reasons why they got to be so angry and abusive - of others and of themselves - mainly have to do with outrageous abuse and neglect by their own parents. Their poignant, private stories are recounted below. But, to the public who rub against their antisocial behaviour in the street, they are proof of a rising trend in "girl violence", a trend that has been under the spotlight since two 13-year-old girls attacked and killed Louise Allen, also 13, a few weeks ago.

There are approximately 24,000 girls in care in England, comprising 47 per cent of all children in care. Statistics show that the ratio of girls to boys in care has risen steadily, as has the number of violent incidents involving young girls as aggressors. In 1994, "girl violence against the person" accounted for 8 per cent of total recorded crime committed by girls under the age of 14, as opposed to just 3 per cent in 1985, and, most alarmingly, it is now just two percentage points below the comparative figure for teenage boys. "The flip side of female empowerment" is one suggested reason, but little comprehensive research exists as to what makes girls behave badly, as opposed to boys.

What we do know is this. Children in care, in open units such as Sunny Oak, cost the state pounds 1,000 per child per week. It's money well spent if it allows them to go on and live independently in society. But success is rare. On any one day, children in care are 80 times more likely to be excluded from school than children who aren't in care; 75 per cent of kids leaving care have no educational qualifications; half are unemployed after one year; one third of homeless young people have been in care; and 23 per cent of the adult prison population have a care background. These statistics make for grim reading. They are statistics of which the residents of Sunny Oak are becoming dimly aware.

Diane, 15, is from north Wales, where her mother works in a bakery and her father is serving a prison sentence. She sits on the sofa and smiles, nervously twirling her dyed blond hair.

"Every Wednesday night, we all pool our pocket money and go out on the bevvie to a bar in town where the ale is cheap. I drink vodka and orange juice, enough to make me sick. We never have any money left to catch a cab home, so we walk. We invariably get picked up and taken home by the police. Last week, I came in and just puked all over my bed. We smoke cannabis and speed whenever we can get it. Once I did cocaine, speed, Ecstasy and alcohol all in one night. I did it for a laugh. When you've had a life like mine, there's not much to laugh about.

I was taken into care because my mum is an alcoholic, and she and I used to hit each other. One day, she hit me over the head with a frying pan and chucked hot water over me, so I ran away to my boyfriend's for six weeks. Mum didn't want me back after that, and I got taken away by social workers.

My dad is in prison. For sexual abuse. For sexually abusing... me. And my sister. From when I was six until when I was ten. It was sexual intercourse, as well as other things. He got 15 years. It came out when my sister told a friend. Mum knew nothing about it. She blamed herself. That's when she turned to alcohol.

At school I just wanted to curl up and hide. I had no confidence. If someone called me a slag, I believed them. I was bullied, but I never defended myself. Academically, I did well, and got As for science and biology, but the bullying got to me and I just stopped going. Now I go to a guidance unit for children who've been expelled from school. From 10am to midday, we do art, maths, science and computers. It's all right, really, and the teacher is nice - he doesn't shout if I'm late. Afterwards, I come home, sit in front of the telly and eat. After the summer, I'm going back to take my GCSEs. I hope to become a marine biologist.

I love living here in Sunny Oak. We girls argue 24 hours a day, but we also cry and laugh together. I broke my virginity voluntarily when I was 13, but since I came here, I fancy girls, too, so now I'm confused as to whether I'm straight, bi or gay. Val, the house manager, is like a mum to me and she's helped me build my self-esteem, but I still get depressed. Last year, I sliced my arms with glass. I don't really have what it takes to kill myself, but there are times when a bleeding wrist is easier to bear than the pain of being 15 and all alone in a children's home, with a past that I can't forget."

Mary, 17, is from a middle-class family in Liverpool and has been in care at Sunny Oak for 18 months. She is slim, with strawberry blond hair, wears a black, halter-neck top and bats her eyelids at her boyfriend, Peter, a 17-year-old apprentice electrician who has come to visit.

"I'm from an average middle-class background: my father manages a department store, my mother is a housewife; and I did well at school. At some point - you could call it becoming a teenager - I rebelled and stopped getting on with Mum and Dad. I used to go out with my mates, knock about the streets, get drunk on cider and smoke cigarettes. Sometimes I stayed out all night, and then I'd be too wrecked to bother with school in the morning. There were seven of us, all girls, and we were a gang. If a girl from another gang was snotty with us or got off with one of our fellas, then we'd batter them. Punch. Kick. Pull hair. Scratch. I've had chunks of my hair pulled out. But usually we beat the shit out of them. Mum tried to discipline me by grounding me, but I climbed out the window. After a while she gave up. From the age of 11, I hardly ever went to school. It was a mutual decision, in the end, that I went into care.

Sunny Oak is the third home I've been in. The others were mixed-sex emergency units, whereas this is a single-sex, long-stay unit. The staff here have helped me get my life back on track. Last year, I went back to school and got six GCSEs, including an A for English language. In September, I'm going to college to do my A levels. I want to become a policewoman in the CID. Meantime, I work 9am to 5pm as a sales assistant in a department store - it's part of a YTS programme - for which I earn pounds 35 a week.

My main complaint about Sunny Oak is the lack of privacy. Everything you do - what you eat, what you say - is monitored, and you get personal progress sheets written about you every day. If Peter and I want sex, we have to go to his parents' house. I've had about 40 boyfriends in my life, though I haven't slept with them all. Most only lasted a couple of weeks, whereas Peter and I have been going out for 18 months. I like boys with a sense of humour, intelligence and big feet.

In a few weeks, I'm moving into my own apartment. I'll be eligible for income support and housing benefit. I'm leaving because this place is no fun any more. I'm more mature than the others. They play their music and rave until late. I have to keep asking them to turn it down. I have work in the morning and I need to go to bed. Unlike them, I don't do drugs and I don't dwell on the past. I worry about my future. I don't wish to end up on the dole."

Sharon, 15, grew up in the badlands of Liverpool. She sports dark glasses pushed high on her dreadlocked hair, and clutches a black book, her "contacts book", which she has covered in condoms.

"I tried to kill my younger sister when I was eight. I put a pillow over her face and tried to suffocate her. I can't remember why I did it, but I have been violent, psycho, for as long as I can remember. If someone spoke crooked to me, I punched them in the throat. I've always been big and strong for my age. One day, I slapped a girl at school and they threw me out. At the age of ten, I started to hang around with a crowd of drug dealers. I sold drugs, robbed houses and broke into cars. It was fun.

I was violent even before my stepdad started abusing me. He never had sex with me, but from the age of eight until 14, it was everything else. I tried to kill him by putting washing-up liquid in his food. I used to spit in his tea. I put pins in his bed and baby oil in his shoes. After a while, I learned that, if I wanted anything - like new jeans - I just had to let him do his thing and I'd get it. One day I told a friend and the police were called in, but I was called a liar and the police found no evidence.

I was taken into care and put in a guidance unit for disaffected children. It did my head in, because I'm clever and these kids were stupid. I wasn't learning anything, so I left. Now I work as a helper at a drop-in centre aimed at people who have complaints about being in care. I like the job because I hate social services. They check on your every move and treat you like prisoners.

This is my third children's home. The first two were nightmares: the staff put us down, confiscated our pocket money and behaved like dickheads. I threw things at them, so they chucked me out. This one is the best because the atmosphere is relaxed and, if you break the rules, they're not heavy. I'll stay here until I'm 18. I still get into arguments, but whereas in the past I would have battered the other person, I now get up, leave the house and return when I have cooled off. I'm learning to calm down since I came here.

I was born with a gift, which is to sing. I have a manager and I've done gigs. Singing is the only thing that eases my mind. I've written a song about being abused which I'm recording in a studio next week. It's called "Daddy Love" and it goes like this: When I was younger/Daddy said to me/you're never gonna make it/you'll never get away from me./Look at me now/I'm feelin' so freeee, freeee, freeee.../Life's been a bitch/been so cruel to me/Daddy didn't want me/he wanted ecstasy...

Yesterday, by chance, I spotted my mum and my stepdad in town. They seemed so happy. One day I'll get revenge. And that's a promise"

The names of the girls have been changed

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