Children 'accept crime as part of everyday life': Most young people in all social classes experience crime - as victim or offender. Heather Mills reports

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CHILDREN growing up in the UK have come to accept crime as part of everyday life - either as victims or as offenders, one of the largest studies of young people ever undertaken shows.

The report says it makes no difference whether children are from working or middle-class backgrounds or live in a city or the country - most children will have had some experience of crime.

Perhaps most disturbing in the research of 4,200 children undertaken by Richard Kinsey, reader in criminology at Edinburgh University, was that nearly one-third of all 14 and 15-year-old girls had been - within the last nine months - the victim of some kind of sexual offence by an adult male.

They ranged from indecent exposure and molestation to more serious sexual crimes such as attempted abduction and rape.

Although sexual offences are more prevalent in the city, as girls from rural areas get older and more mobile they also are more likely to fall victim. Sexual offences against young boys tended to diminish as they got older and bigger. Fifteen per cent of 11- years-olds in city areas recounted incidents compared with only 5 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds.

Mr Kinsey, who is to discuss his research at the Crime Concern annual conference today, says that children are the most victimised section of society - many falling prey to adults or older teenagers, with damaging consequences. As they get older some children, particularly girls, begin to take such incidents for granted, seeing it as a problem they had to cope with as part of growing up.

The study found that in the town, country or city more than one-third of children had been subject to a recent assault, more than a quarter had been threatened with violence and more than one in ten had been the victim of street theft. In cities it made no difference whether the child came from the poorest housing scheme or the leafy suburbs.

'What was really shocking is that many feel it is something they have to cope with alone. In the majority of cases they do not tell police and in three-quarters of incidents they do not even tell their parents,' he said. The victims of sexual offences - particularly girls - often formed their own kind of 'victim support', fearing that if they turned to adults they would not be believed or they would in some way be blamed.

One 11-year-old victim of a serious sexual assault described how 'the lady policeman' did not initially believe her account. It was only after speaking to the girl's father that police decided to visit the scene, discovered items of her clothing and only then took her complaint seriously.

To most children these experiences were far more significant than their own rule-breaking. They felt that adult perceptions of children as 'juvenile deliquents' smacked of double standards - particularly when compared to the findings on sex crime.

Tom Wood, Assistant Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders, who uses the research in his training programme, said: 'This research has brought into sharp focus that children should be regarded as victims or customers rather than protagonists.'

The research, it is argued, debunks the theory that juvenile crime is the work of a hard core of delinquents. While there are undoubtedly some young people who repeatedly offend, they account for only a fraction of crime.

It reveals that most children from all backgrounds commit some kind of offence from shoplifting and vandalism to housebreaking and car theft. Two-thirds of the young people admitted to criminal behaviour within the last nine months.

While the study was carried out in Scotland, pilot schemes in England so far indicate similar patterns of offending behaviour and victimisation. Parts of the study of young people are now being replicated by the Home Office's British Crime Survey team.

The study found two worrying aspects of the children's perceptions of victimisation and the need to tackle it alone. One-third admitted to carrying weapons such as a knife, in itself a crime, and others said they went round in gangs, a common ground of complaint from people to the police.

But Mr Kinsey said that while not diminishing the problems of weapon-carrying and gang activities, the solution to the problems of young people and crime did not simply lie in the punishment of children - or in the new powers of fining their parents.

'The most important thing to recognise is that we must stop regarding young people in terms of criminality and delinquency. Such policies are misdirected and more likely to make children even more reluctant to tell parents about where they have been and what has happened to them. Until we start taking young people's problems seriously, we will not break out of this vicious circle,' he said.