Johann Hari: Now we have proof 'tough' policies fail kids

Anything that helps a child connect with a mother-figure will save a fortune - and a lot of pain
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The Independent Online

When it comes to children, Britain alternates between two shrieking extremes. On Monday, we have a paranoid fear for children, keeping them locked up at home because we have convinced ourselves there are paedophiles lurking in every public space. On Tuesday, we have a paranoid fear of children, convinced that every group of young kids is a knife-wielding mob.

When a story comes along that doesn't fit into these templates - angel-children or devil-children - we simply can't process it. Over the past week, children's charities have been warning frantically that the youth justice system is in meltdown. The number of kids being imprisoned has doubled over the past decade. Rehab and education programmes have jammed up. All the beds are full. Children are being shunted across the country, with London kids being sent one week up to the Scottish Borders and the next shunted back down to the South. This system could hardly be more obviously failing: 70 per cent of the children who leave our young offenders' institutes are back to crime within two years. But these are Bad Children, so the story soon slipped from the headlines.

And yet there is one organisation slowly, carefully teasing out the complexities of children who smash off the rails and into the rest of us. For the past three years, I have been writing about Kid's Company. It's a drop-in centre in South London that provides three meals a day and a sympathetic smile for the out-of-control children everyone else has thrown out.

I have watched its founder, Camilla Batmangelidh, as she holds the hand of a 14-year-old boy who is describing what it was like to smash in another child's skull with a hammer. These are the children of London's crackhouses and forgotten concrete estates. But Kids' Company is not only significant for its social work: Batmangelidh is at the forefront of research into why some children veer violently out of control, and how our system is failing to stop them.

Over the past decade, she has discovered that the key to understanding these children lies back in their cradles. After the Vietnam War, there was a long psychological study to find out why some people had lost the plot, when other soldiers in the same situation returned easily to normal life. They discovered one unexpected connecting thread: if you had a healthy bond with your mother as a baby, you almost always made it through. If you didn't, you almost always fell apart.

How does this affect Camilla's kids? She called in neuroscientists to study them, and explains: "We know from PET scans of babies' brains that a strong maternal relationship actually changes the way your brain develops at those crucial early stages. Look at the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that makes it possible to see yourself in the future, anticipate problems, and think rationally. We know now it is brought to life and programmed by a strong maternal relationship."

The children turning up at Kid's Company were born into households where the mother was so stressed she couldn't calm herself, never mind calm her baby. "So these children have underdeveloped calming mechanisms and underdeveloped frontal lobes," she explains. "The neuoronal pathways that are supposed to operate to help kids calm down just aren't operating robustly enough. On top of that, because they have grown up feeling constantly in danger, their bodies are flooded with abnormally high levels of adrenaline and cortisol that keep them constantly tense and primed to blow. So it turns out when these kids tell me they couldn't stop themselves, they mean it. They're not morally flawed - their terrible childhoods have actually left them neurologically impaired."

This is a hard argument to accept, because it challenges the basic idea underpinning our legal systems: that we all exercise free will with our basically similar brains. But there is startling evidence for it - and not just from brain scans. In the mid-1980s, the American sociologist David Olds selected 400 poor mothers in Minnesota to study. Half of them were given intensive support from health visitors to help them bond with their babies, and half of them were not. When he returned 15 years later, he discovered the children who had been helped to achieve a strong maternal bond were an amazing 50 per cent less likely to have been arrested.

So what do we do with these radical discoveries? We should stamp all our services for the young with a new slogan (with all due credit to E M Forster): only connect. Anything that helps a child connect with a mother-figure will save a fortune - and a lot of pain - further down the line, whether it's regular visits from a health visitor, SureStart or compulsory parenting classes.

But what are the implications for youth justice? Some clinicians believe a baby's neurochemistry is largely set by the age of three, but Batmangelidh believes there is another window of opportunity in adolescence when the teenage brain is reorganising itself. "You can't repair the harm one hundred per cent, but you can do a lot," she says, "if you try to form a very strong substitute maternal bond with the child at that point. This morning I've been with a boy who is a major criminal, and he wants to give himself up to the police. Why? Because he's experiencing guilt. Nobody would have ever thought this child would ever experience guilt. That's because he has been forming a maternal attachment relationship for the first time, so his brain chemistry is adjusting."

There are some social science studies suggesting she's right. In Missouri, the sociologist Charles Borduin studied an experiment where 83 young offenders were given the kind of intensive care and attention Camilla provides, and 83 were not. Four years later, 29 per cent of the kids given proper care had been rearrested, compared to 74 per cent in the group that did not receive therapy.

This helps to explain why the current system is flailing and failing so badly. There are only very patchy attempts to do the emotional repair-work these children need, slowly readjusting their brain chemistry by forming maternal bonds with them, once they are detained. It's almost impossible to imagine a testosterone-obsessed politician like John Reid talking about attachment theory. (His slogan might be - don't stand by kids, stand on them). We have one brief window to turn these kids around, but because of this macho politics we are wasting it on "tough" solutions that make the kids even less attached, reinforcing the root of the problem.

Each of these children being tossed every week from young offenders' institute to young offenders' institute is a neurologically impaired ticking time-bomb, primed to commit more crimes. Camilla Batmangelidh has shown us how to slowly defuse them, and make us all safer. So when are we going to see beyond our primitive urges for revenge against abused kids, and start listening to her?