A safari holds more hope than jail: Brendan McNutt outlines the case for travel rather than a sentence for young offenders

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The Independent Online
WIDESPREAD outrage has been expressed about the case of the 17-year-old boy who was arrested for an alleged drink-driving offence less than a week after arriving home from a three-month, all-

expenses-paid 'therapeutic' trip to Africa. Such popular sentiment is easy to understand. How many law-abiding, tax-paying parents can afford either the time or the money to take their law-abiding children on three-month trips anywhere - let alone a trip that includes a Nile cruise and a safari? Why should a boy who has broken the law repeatedly be given an experience that many would see as a 'reward' rather than therapy or punishment?

The approach we take at the Bryn Melyn Community proceeds from the special requirements of the young people with whom we work. We accept those aged 15 and over whose very considerable needs have not been met elsewhere - not by their families, not by their schools, not by the courts. We are an option of last resort. Often we accept young people who are emotionally disturbed or suffering the effects of physical or sexual abuse. We treat them on a one-to-one basis and try to initiate them into responsible adulthood.

Because it is neither possible nor desirable to 'do' therapy with anybody for extended periods, we design our programmes around an interest that the young person has expressed. This can be anything - from rock climbing and horse riding to architecture. These programmes require certain locations; but just because they may take place abroad and involve enjoyment does not mean that they should be regarded as holidays.

There are several additional reasons why some of this work is conducted abroad. First, much of the experience is, and is supposed to be, highly confrontational. It is understandable that people should try to run away. It is far more difficult to abscond when the environment is unfamiliar and far away. Second, if therapy is to be effective, the young person usually needs to make a clean break with his or her past. Being abroad makes for a change in place, living conditions, responsibilities and personal requirements and can foster new patterns of behaviour. Third, we believe the young person is far more likely to learn if the process is enjoyable.

It should be stressed that all the young people we work with have been damaged. We have all seen, and many of us have responded sentimentally to those heart-rending advertisements in newspapers seeking support for the work of the NSPCC. The image of a hurt and abused infant cowering in a dark corner, clinging to a teddy bear for comfort is an image that none of us easily forgets. But we tend to forget what happens next.

Those cute and hurt infants who have been traumatically wounded physically, psychologically and emotionally are growing up all of the time. For the most unlucky of them the abuse and trauma continue throughout childhood, into adolescence and until such time as the child develops the strength to escape its own wretched family environment. A young person may make this escape in a variety of ways. One is to behave in such a way as to be described as 'beyond control' and need to be taken into the care of the local authority. Another way is to embark upon a career of drawing attention to their plight by petty offending - another route into care. If responsible adults are still taking no notice of how unhappy and wretched life is, then activities escalate until somebody does take notice. All of a sudden the cute and wounded infant is a large and not so attractive adolescent. He or she may have become aggressive, violent, withdrawn or may have become loud, belligerent and 'criminal'. But he or she is the same child as the one for whom we had so much sympathy a few years earlier.

What happened to our sympathy? We cannot blame the child for having been abused and traumatised by its family. We cannot blame the child for wanting to be rescued from such an awful situation. And we must not forget the confusion of the child who, despite the abuse of his parents, or their neglect, or their abandonment, still loves his mum and dad. What an impossible position - to love somebody who maltreats you and whose actions you find repugnant]

Some of these children remarkably do not offend against society in any way. Some of them do commit petty crimes and some develop patterns of behaviour that not surprisingly are called anti-social. How does society react to these adolescents? Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has called for more prisons, stiffer penalties for offenders and more police on the streets to deal with the rise in juvenile crime. At the same time, thankfully, Lord Woolf and many of his judicial colleagues have told the Home Secretary that he is wrong.

The judges have recognised from experience that reacting to the symptom (ie crime) will not eradicate the causes (ie social and family conditions). The Home Secretary's approach is, however, attractive: it is simple, cheaper and may also win votes. But it is not

effective.

It would be unfair to level criticisms of heartlessness and expedience at our leaders. We are all familiar with the Nimby (not in my back yard) syndrome. We have on our own doorstep clergymen and local councillors who do themselves no credit by their demands for punishment, blame and guilt to be attached to young people whose lives have been sheer hell. We must all take responsibility for what we say and what we do not say.

We have to find effective ways to deal with people who have been maltreated as children. We will not improve the lives of abandoned and neglected children by punishing them for their parents' mistakes - and many, many parents are making mistakes. Do not believe that only a small number of children are abused or neglected. How many well looked after children do you know who steal cars? There is a reason for all behaviour and anti-social and criminal behaviour is no exception.

So next time that you hear a call for stiffer penalties and more prisons for young people who misbehave, and next time anyone condemns 'safari holidays for criminals on the rates', remember the pathetic infant cowering in the corner. He has grown up; but he still needs our help.

The writer is principal of the Bryn Melyn Community.

(Photograph omitted)

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