Bernard Hare: They sniff glue, steal cars... and write poetry

I dropped out of social work, then dropped out of society
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The Independent Online

Why is our society so keen to criminalise, exclude and lock up so many young people? "Feral" kids are demonised in the press; hoodies are banned from shopping centres; Asbos are handed out, often for petty offences which would not normally merit a fine, but which can land the "offender" in jail when breached; and parenting orders make it clear that parents are to blame for criminality - nothing to do with inadequate social services and schools, poverty, or incompetent government agencies or employees.

Having worked as a social worker and then having suffered social exclusion, I've seen both sides of the coin. When I began my career in the late 1970s, the idea was to identify kids who were experiencing problems and to intercept them before they got in trouble. Groups were introduced to challenging activities, like canoeing, camping or educational trips. It seemed better to spend a small amount on them early, rather than to lock them up later at enormous cost.

This all changed when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Suddenly, it was seen as giving treats to bad kids and the short sharp shock mentality took over. The juvenile justice business expanded until, now, many people have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, even though little or nothing is done for offenders in terms of rehabilitation, job prospects, or education.

I became a social worker because I saw it as a caring profession. I became disillusioned and eventually left when the control element grew in prominence. Having dropped out of social work, I soon dropped out of society. I come from a mining family and during the strike of 1984 I began to see that my community, indeed my entire class, was under attack. I picked up a minor criminal record, which made it hardto find work. I fell into depression, started drinking heavily and using drugs. Having descended the social scale to the very bottom, I came across a gang of a dozen children living in a shed in east Leeds. They were anti-social, promiscuous, they stole cars, they drank, took drugs, sniffed glue, wore hoodies, and were generally society's worst nightmare come true.

But all were being denied their rights under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child: the right to love, affection and understanding (most were on the run from care), the right to a free education (not one was in school), the right to free medical care (not one had a doctor), the right to be a useful member of society and to develop individual abilities (that's a laugh), etc.

Society had washed its hands of them, yet we are surprised when they get hungry and steal, get angry and turn violent, get lonely and become promiscuous, get bored and go joyriding. No school would touch them, yet they would sit around my flat writing poetry, drawing pictures and playing chess all day. No children's home could cope with them, yet they treated me with nothing but respect and affection.

Society has to ask itself why it is failing to engage children and young people like these. By excluding and criminalising them, we waste our most precious human resources. Out of sight is out of mind. Maybe we lock them up so that we don't have to face up to our own fears, our own failings, our own guilt?

Bernard Hare is the author of 'Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew'