Ignore the hysteria: this is where the seeds of violent crime are sown

'We feel frightened and angry, while politicians greet rises in violent crime in ever shriller voices'

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Violence is on the increase. We've had the horror of Sarah Payne's murder being confirmed; figures showing an alarming rise in domestic violence; and in Holloway, close to where I live, a young man was stabbed to death after a pointless altercation outside a pub. It all looks like grim confirmation of the figures released this week showing a 14 per cent increase in violent crime.

Violence is on the increase. We've had the horror of Sarah Payne's murder being confirmed; figures showing an alarming rise in domestic violence; and in Holloway, close to where I live, a young man was stabbed to death after a pointless altercation outside a pub. It all looks like grim confirmation of the figures released this week showing a 14 per cent increase in violent crime.

Not surprisingly, we feel frightened and angry while politicians greet such news with familiar responses delivered in ever-shriller voices as they promise they will catch more criminals and be even nastier to them when they get them. When fear and loathing is running high, as at present, it can sound like the only answer.

I feel the same gut-wrenching loathing as anyone for the person who subjected Sarah Payne to her horrifying ordeal, and like many people, I fear violent crime. One of my sons was mugged at knifepoint by a gang at the age of 14; the other woke up one night to find two men with crowbars who had broken into the house where he was staying. I don't want to live with the ever-present threat that violent criminals pose to my family and to me.

But politicians jousting in machismo don't come up with an answer that keeps us safer. What we need is prevention, a way of stopping people being violent in the first place, more than desperate attempts to prove to the public that they are being protected after the event.

And before the howls of "dream-on" become deafening, I would like to point you to the newest neurological research. This is showing how the DNA of an infant's brain may actually be permanently altered if the child is brought up in an environment where it experiences intense stress, emotional neglect, chronic parental depression and abuse.

Robin Karr Morse and Meredith S Wiley, authors of Ghosts from the Nursery, a book which draws together much of the cutting-edge work being done in America with a view to finding the genesis of violence, using such techniques as MRI scans to look at the activity in babies' brains, warn that, if we don't grasp how essential it is to find ways of preventing the seeds of violence being sown during the nine months of gestation and the first two years of life, it may be too late.

What happens when babies get negative instead of the positive stimuli which make them feel securely cared for and safe in attaching themselves to their mother or primary carer, is effectively a skewed control-panel in the brain. A healthily attached baby can regulate its emotions as it grows older because the cortex, the part of the brain which exercises rational thought and control, has developed properly. But the cortex is underdeveloped in the child whose life has been impacted on so badly that, as neurophysiologist Joseph LeDoux puts it, "there is no emotional guardian".

So when something happens that upsets the child in later life, reminding them of the distress, anger, pain they suffered, the brain is flooded with powerful emotions that override rational thought and lead to impulsiveness, attention-deficit disorder and the blotting out of empathy - things that are found over and over in violent criminals.

It is, of course, one thing to diagnose the problem, but how do we alter the destiny of children whose lives are being primed for violent future behaviour so very young? And what are we talking about - lobotomies for kids already showing signs of aggression and antisocial behaviour as they reach nursery school?

In fact, the possible solution has more to do with us taking a collective responsibility for caring about the circumstances, in all their complexity, that clearly predispose children to delinquency. Poverty, with all the ways it distorts families and parenting, is top of the list.

Since West and Farrington produced their seminal study of delinquency, showing how thoroughly poverty led to the kind of negative experiences the neuro-researchers are talking about, it has been well documented that economic deprivation, along with physical and sexual abuse, are found over and over again in the histories of violent criminals.

But what is emerging now is too important to ignore. There is already evidence that something can be done to prevent the lifelong damage inflicted in babyhood. The Anna Freud Centre in London was given a grant in 1997 to develop an infant-health project. They began by interviewing 100 couples expecting their first child. They predicted with 75 per cent accuracy those children at risk.

Since then, they have organised therapy for parents and babies, with the focus on creating a healthy relationship between them and preventing the "ghosts from the nursery" - the unconscious memories of the parents' own unhappy and negative childhood experiences - from resurfacing and being re-enacted on their child.

And they can do so in frighteningly powerful ways. I recall the case of a young man who had murdered his son. He explained in court how he was looking after his baby who was crying and would not be consoled. It brought forth a powerful memory of his father beating him, in his bed as a small child, because he wouldn't stop crying himself, and in the furious flooding of emotion, he battered his son to death.

In fact, the Government has taken an important step in recognising how vital early interventions are, with Sure Start, set up to fund projects targeting under-threes, but the Anna Freud Centre would like to see thorough psychotherapeutic training for health visitors and other professionals who come into contact with families with infants, to spot "at riskness" and offer help in time.

Of course, this work is not an alternative to dealing with those adults who commit crimes that threaten us. And at a time when there is outrage at what happened to Sarah Payne, the post hoc, knee-jerk reaction is a call for a return to hanging for people like Sarah's killer - a more palatable suggestion than attempts to understand the suffering that may warp a person so thoroughly that they can commit the most brutal acts.

Yet hanging will not bring back Sarah nor prevent the next killer driven by impulsive emotion, which brings me back to the importance of prevention. If we care about the kind of society our children and grandchildren are to grow up in, then putting some substance back into Jack Straw's earlier protestation that he would be tough on the causes of crime, rather than focusing entirely on being tough on crime, may be the best thing we can do to protect our children and grandchildren.

a.neustatter@dial.pipex.com

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