Children who kill are not evil, say doctors

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The Independent Online
THREE leading psychiatrists yesterday dismissed the notion that children and teenagers who murder were innately evil and cited a combination of causes ranging from bad parenting to mental illness.

Their talks at the Royal College of Psychiatrists were prompted by coverage of the James Bulger murder trial, in which the 11-year-old killers were described as 'evil' and 'monsters'.

Dr Dora Black, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the trauma clinic at the Royal Free Hospital, north London said: 'The terms evil and monster are not psychiatric diagnoses. I think children vary in the way they have been socialised; how well they have been taught to behave, curb their impulses and how to empathise and feel for others.

'As a society we should be trying to protect children more and that includes all the adults who saw James Bulger that day and failed to intervene.

'If just one of those people had called the police his life would have been saved. Adults must take responsibility for the children in their midst.'

Dr Sue Bailey, a psychiatrist who has studied juvenile offenders including 20 child murderers and 200 adolescent sex offenders, said: 'There have always been adolescents who have killed. It is pointless looking at them as evil.'

Asked whether she believed violent videos influenced children, Dr Bailey said: 'In a quarter of cases I feel videos are relevant, but it is the interaction of the video with the vulnerable person. I don't believe there is a causal connection; videos are one of the influences. But we ignore them at our peril.'

Of the 20 murderers, she found some had 'florid mental illness', but only one was not responding to treatment.

Of the 200 sex offenders, Dr Bailey found that 32 per cent had a history of absconding and 41 per cent of truanting; 58 per cent had learning difficulties; 19 per cent had a history of self-harm; 31 per cent had a history of substance misuse; 21 per cent had suffered sexual abuse within the family and 14 per cent outside the family.

Dr Bailey said there appeared to be a 'slight sea change' which Home Office statistics showed as a slight increase in juvenile crime. There also appeared to be an increase in crime committed by young females, in particular sexual offences.

Professor Israel Kolvin, who studied the behaviour of 1,000 children born in Newcastle upon Tyne, said he had identified four different types of dangerousness among adolescents: the assertive, hostile, aggressive and thug-like who hung around in groups expecting trouble; the type who occasionally suffered a catastrophic, impulsive breakdown but afterwards expressed remorse; the unapproachable and always hostile paranoid who did not express remorse; and, the most dangerous, those who showed cold and sadistic behaviour which expressed itself in aggressive acts to children and animals.