Deborah Orr: Hang 'em? Hug 'em? The answer lies in the middle – and it can be reached by both sides

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The Independent Online

Polls are fiendishly misleading at the best of times, so I blush as I cite the slender evidence of an internet poll run yesterday on the website of the local London newspaper, The South London Press. "Should parents take responsibility for gun crime kids?" readers were asked. A remarkable 23.3 per cent of correspondents answered: "No." Now there are various way to interpret this perplexing little nugget, and the most straightforward one would be to suggest that such limited ideas about parental responsibility in this not overly leafy corner of England might have an unambiguous relation to the bracing preponderance of gun-crime-kid activity in the area.

For the sake of argument, I'm going to run with this, simply because my hunch is that this poll, in its crude way, probably does represent a genuine geographical blip in otherwise shared values about parental responsibility. Apart from anything else, it is clear that concentrations of difficult families are geographically localised, in estates like the two reported to have sandwiched the area in which 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead last week. There's not much point in achieving a national consensus that "blames the parents" unless we bear in mind that a number of parents are quite militantly keen not to blame themselves, and that they often live in small, poor and harsh communities where their unusual ideas about what is normal are very often ratified rather than challenged by their neighbours and their peers.

The good news is that there is national consensus around this issue. It may appear that the debate around youth crime continues on the same old lines, with the "hang 'em, flog 'em" brigade implacably opposed to the "hug 'em, love 'em" brigade, and vice versa. But as in most matters, searching for common ground is more likely to yield practical results than retreating behind the para-political lines, and it is worth trying at least to look at these issues in such a way.

The right is unapologetic in its championship of stable family life as an insulator against social ills, even though its ideas on how you go about promoting this are hazy, and its ideas on how to intervene in the short term to lessen or reverse the trends of recent decades are even less clear. Still, since consensus on the role of poverty, of mental illness, of drugs, of liberal values, of poor diet, of the media, and so on, is all still so hotly contested that it might be useful to seize on any sign of agreement and swing behind the not so preposterous idea that a more conventional family life is often a more safe one.

The left, it's true, is more hung up on the idea that such traditional values are harshly simplistic. Yet beneath the rhetoric the left talks the same language as the right. When liberals list the practical ways in which hoodies are actually to be hugged, and in which delinquent children are actually to be rehabilitated, the aim is always, magically, to instil the kind of self-confidence and self-determination that might otherwise have been provided by none other than some love, some boundaries, and a stable family life.

Unfortunately, the state has not proved over recent years to be at all adequate in achieving such aims, even though there is plenty of evidence that elsewhere it can be done better. Whenever an incident or series of incidents stimulates discussion on matters pertaining to "feral children", there is a great outpouring of liberal angst about the failure of the youth justice system to help children in the way that they need to be helped. What is often overlooked, though, is the fact that even children who have broken no law, but have simply had the misfortune to have inadequate parents, do not receive such careful treatment.

Children with problems at home are very often identified by the teachers at their schools. Already, though, the pattern is set. There is not a great deal that schools can do in the face of an uncooperative parent, so the child becomes the problem. Recent political debate typifies this impasse, whereby the child is blamed for the parents' inadequacy, because the parent refuses the responsibility.

For Labour, the answer has been quite coercively counterproductive. Schools are encouraged only to exclude children when the situation becomes intolerable, and even then the parents, with whom the real difficulty resides, can appeal. For the Conservatives, the answer is to allow schools more freedom to exclude. This alternative is a little kinder to the rest of the people at the school. But it is, for the child in question, even more of a blight on his or her future, unless adequate alternative educational provision, and social support, is in place. Usually, it isn't, and the child will end up at a school more heavily populated by children whose parents share similarly uncooperative attitudes. Such schools need different facilities, a broader range of staffing and of services, and a different agenda even when it comes to simple things such as socialising children. But often, considering the level of difficulty they are dealing with, their resources are actually more thinly spread. For many children, of course, all education ends with exclusion, which rather contradicts the idea of making school compulsory until a "child" is 18.

When things reach the school exclusion stage, it is certain that social services will be involved. Again, the orthodox approach is to maintain the integrity of the biological family, no matter how hopeless that may be. And again, this is not because social workers are idiots. It is because the alternatives by this stage are even more perilous. Children in care are notoriously vulnerable, and even when older children from challenging backgrounds are successfully put up for adoption, their troubles are so great that there is a huge possibility that their adoptions will fail.

Very occasionally, a politician will suggest that perhaps it might be a good idea to extend the availability of state boarding schools – of which there are a few already. No doubt in the short term the prohibitive cost of establishing such schools causes the idea to fall right back off the agenda. But it often seems to me that it is a good idea to provide a stable respite from chaotic homes in chaotic communities for children whose parents have drug, alcohol, mental health or other problems, because it takes them out of a damaging environment without completely severing their links to their families.

In such places, as well as conventional schooling, children could presumably be provided with the basic things that parents ought to provide, like limited access to the telly and the computer, or adequate sleep and decent food, as well as the things that damaged children need, like counselling, therapy and plenty of creative activity. Without fairly lavish interventions at this stage, after all, the children of these children have no chance at all. Very soon, they will be parents who are blamed, even though it is their children, in turn, who will be punished.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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