The Bulger Murder: Young criminals are 'sad rather than bad': Psychiatrists put the blame on upbringing. Angela Neustatter and Liz Hunt report

Click to follow
HOW CAN a child, in cold blood, inflict acts of such utter cruelty on another that adults are left sickened and uncomprehending at their behaviour?

Similar incomprehension followed the strangling of a small boy by 11-year-old Mary Bell in 1968. The jury in the James Bulger case has delivered its verdict, but attempts to explain the tragic events of the afternoon when the two-year-old was abducted are only beginning.

The depth of public feeling, of fury and revulsion tempered with compassion for the Bulger family, does not make it easy to see Jon Venables and Robert Thompson as victims.

But Dr Janet Reibstein, a psychologist at Cambridge University, said we must consider what has been 'murdered' in such a child. 'You cannot say it is simply a matter of original sin. There are things which happen to children which push them to an emotional breaking point.'

It is a view shared by Dr Carol Sheldrick, consultant in child and adolescent forensic psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, London, who suggested that children who committed horrendous crimes were 'sad rather than bad'. She said: 'My experience is that children who have done something we consider very bad have almost always suffered some kind of abuse or severe emotional neglect themselves, so that a sense of their own self-worth has not developed.'

One of the most chilling aspects of the Bulger case is that the boys appeared unmoved by James's distress on their long walk. Their continued abuse suggested a disregard for right and wrong.

Dr Anthony Storr, former clinical lecturer in psychiatry at Oxford and now emeritus fellow of Green College, said this was symptomatic of emotionally deprived children. 'Those who feel that nobody cares for them, care for nobody,' he said.

But Dr Joe Tomshak, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, wondered if the fundamental nature of children was being overlooked. 'Those children were playing a game, a very serious game. Children are basically hedonistic and not interested in the future, they are absorbed in the here and now. I do believe what happened with the boys who took James Bulger was play, a play on the mean side which went too far. What we have seen is children who have not learnt controls. If anyone should be in the dock it is the parents.'

The idea of adult responsibility is taken a step further by Dr Reibstein. 'Children do kill, we know, in a sudden unleashing of anger, but this is something very different. It involves a level of sophistication and co-operative behaviour which doesn't go with 10-year-old behaviour.

'Through being brought into adult culture the children may have been exposed to videos, games, conversation where people carry out sadistic acts. The child who does not have a lot of other stimulus in life, or power, and sees adults entertain themselves by watching acts of shocking brutality, might see it as an effective way of gaining some status.'

Professor Spenser Millham and Dr Michael Little from Dartington social research unit have studied young offenders, and say that children's murders are usually linked to disturbed family relationships. 'We are talking about children so emotionally undernourished that they are caught in their own turmoil and pain and may act that out on another child,' Dr Little said.

It is a theme that Felicity de Zulueta, consultant psychotherapist and senior lecturer in psychiatry at Charing Cross Hospital, London, spent three years researching for her book, From Pain to Violence - the traumatic roots of destructiveness.

She said that children who felt their parents did not empathise with their feelings would 'grow up with poor self-esteem'. That was also true of children who had been sexually or physically abused. There was strong evidence to show that those experiences lay at the root of violent behaviour which could manifest itself at an early age.

Dr de Zulueta said that we need to understand if we want to prevent crimes such as the murder of James Bulger. Parents who cannot nurture their children

adequately may be repeating their own experience in a cycle of behaviour.