The real question: why are our children prepared to kill one another?

We need to ask why so many young lives are being cut short by teenagers
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The Independent Online

There are two rates for renting a gun on the streets of Britain. If the weapon is returned unused, it can cost £50. If it is fired, the price is £250. That is the cost of shooting someone in the world's fourth richest country.

The harrowing and sad death of Rhys Jones brought home this week the unseen and sinister infrastructure for young people to use firearms that now exists in Britain's cities. The rage, bewilderment and hatred that have followed Rhys's murder while he walked home from playing football are understandable. Questions are being asked about whether we have a state of anarchy on our streets, whether a generation is being lost to violent lyrics, images that glorify murder and poor parenting. The eight children on the front page, all of them aged under 18, are unified by one single fact: they all had their lives cut short this year by their fellow teenagers.

But the question that needs to be asked is this: what brings a teenager to the point where he, or even she, could access the illegal gun infrastructure - either by loan, rental or direct order of a gang leader - and use it?

We are very strong in this country in showing condemnation. What we are not so good at is showing curiosity about what brings us to a situation where so many young lives have been taken with guns.

The answer is that Britain has created a society where vulnerable children are not being helped quickly enough. We have a society where it is the criminal justice system that is the first line of defence for dealing with the emotionally numbed individuals that lie behind these crimes.

This is a system every bit as psychologically flawed as the individuals it seeks to assist. We have youth recidivism rates of up to 80 per cent. Child custody does not work. We need to intervene long, long before the police, courts and prisons become involved. Kids Company has spent 11 years working in south London and we have learnt lessons about what creates the problems we face that do not appear in the textbooks.

Through the thousands of life stories of children who have passed through our doors, we have learnt what happens to make them capable of these acts.

It does not make easy reading. These are stories about very young children who suffer chronic abuse. Imagine a child who sees a bottle being broken over their mother's head within the notional safety of the home. Imagine a child who suffers verbal abuse and physical assault, whose early life is a montage of violent imagery.

They will initially react by trying to stop this abuse. But when they learn very quickly that this does not work they shut down their ability to feel. No one has stepped in to protect them and they have achieved a mindset which I describe as a kind of emotional and psychological death.

This is not what David Cameron refers to as anarchy; it is nihilism. It is an absence of values in which the notion of society, community and responsibility has been eradicated by violence. Every encounter with adults for these children has been toxic. Instead, the lives of these children and young people are about survival. They are, in their own words, "lone soldiers" who come into contact with those who will facilitate violence.

Their influence is viral. These young people gather around them imitators and hangers-on who want to copy the culture and accept the violence that goes with it in order not to be attacked. It is these imitators who are influenced by cultural factors such as music. In contrast, there are no robust structures within the community to redress the balance. There are no social facilities they can afford to use, there is no meaningful mental health provision and housing assistance for anyone over 18 consists of a list of private landlords who demand three months' rent in advance which they cannot pay. The under-16s are in bed and breakfasts and in unsupervised hostels.

Who steps into this void? Imagine three concentric circles. In the first stands the drug dealer and gangster, a remote-control businessman who leads a criminal network. In the second stand our lone children. They are recruited by the dealer, initially by riding around on their bicycles providing information. In the third circle are children who imitate the violence.

If the lone children prove trustworthy, they work as drug couriers. The gang that forms around them helps define them. They eventually get given their own drugs to sell or become someone who is told to go out and harm others. They access the infrastructure of firearms, provided by a central dealer or may be a father, older brother or cousin. If you know the right people, they are simply for hire.

We do not yet know who killed Rhys Jones or where the weapon came from. But already the debate has been polarised into one about the "demon children" who are attacking the rest of us and the need for harsher punishments and more enforcement.

There are never going to be enough surveillance cameras or police to counter the effects of profound emotional damage.

Our society is not able to solve the problems of problem children. We do not invest enough in social care and mental health. One London borough we worked with last year received 7,165 formal referrals for assistance to its social work unit and child protection teams. They were able to give help to 215 of those cases. At the same time, referrals are going down because professionals in the system do not want to run the risk of formally recognising a child as vulnerable only for that child not to receive assistance.

There is a situation developing where some professionals are becoming as hardened to the dangers faced by these children as the children themselves. Into this growing deadlock, certain figures choose to pour criticism about music, film and television. These are solutions from their own point of view.

Just because they know about these influences, they are not the driving force and solutions based around them are shallow and trite.

Concerts in support of gun amnesties are great. But they do not solve the problem. The answers are long term and require dedication and resources. These children are not born criminals and we have the opportunity to divert them from what many increasingly consider their destiny.

The answer is to strengthen the influence of the parents and, where that is not possible, provide the structure of a family home.

There are not enough foster carers to deal with these children so organisations like ourselves provide a structure for seven days a week - a place to do homework or a college assignment; somewhere to eat or do laundry; a place where there is the doctor, nurse, therapist, musician. It is not enough to have a once-a-week hip hop lesson.

We have a cohort of 925 of these so-called "feral children" at Kids Company. Of these, two are in custody for gun crime, the others are far more likely to be victims of it rather than perpetrators.

It is time to get close to this problem. The fourth richest country in the world has a child mental health and protection system it should be ashamed of.

Let us not pretend we do not know who these youths with guns are. We know at the age of three or four who they are but we do not have the resources or infrastructure in place to help them.

'These are scared little boys who need help'

Ian George Brooks

Vicar, St Cuthbert's, Croxteth

"Very young people with guns is very frightening and worries everyone. The police have been doing their best, but the youngsters are clever. They dismantle the guns better than an Army drill instructor so the guns are in pieces before the police arrive. But it's not as if gun crime is a common pattern."

David Cameron

Conservative Party leader

"We can carry on as we are until we stop even being shocked at the shooting of an 11-year-old boy... unless we choose to change, that is exactly what will happen. Or we can say: 'I have had enough of all this. I have seen enough mothers burying their sons. I will not put up with this in my community any more.'"

John Sentamu

Archbishop of York

"There is a danger that we are giving in to the politics of fear. We must resist this. In discerning a response that provides a genuine solution we must not be motivated by the politics of fear which leads to political short-termism. Fear has begun to shape our minds, it cannot be allowed to shape our decisions."

Roger McGough

Poet and children's author

"Too many young people are growing up in bad housing, with high unemployment and poor schools. If we are going to give opportunities to young people, we need them to grow up in an environment where they get a good education, the skills to gain employment and support from the community and the state."

David Blunkett

Former Home Secretary

"This is a challenge for all of us. Politicians do not have all the answers... It isn't legislation alone; the powers exist. Maybe there are more measures to be taken. But they need to be taken in the broader context as people say enough is enough and we will collaborate, as they have in some communities."

Akala

Rapper

"Being sent to prison is not going to tackle the root causes. Poverty, single parents, lack of education... led to young men hating themselves. We're not talking about Al Capone here, these are scared little boys who need help before crimes are committed, not punishment afterwards."