They're not vermin – they need direction


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The Independent Online

We continue to believe that children involved in gangs are different from us. In describing them as "vermin", "predators" and "criminals", we negate them as a species apart.

On gangs as national enemy, we declare war – the police remove their leaders, the courts apply maximum sentences, some councils evict them, and, according to the Centre for Social Justice's report, Time to Wake Up, none of it has worked.

At Kids Company, independent scientists assessing child gang members found that one in five of them had been shot at and/or stabbed. A third don't have a bed to sleep on. Combination of overexposure to terror and relentless material depletion are primary drivers of young people into gangs.

As a gang leader said to me: "Camila, at first I looked for a family, then I watched how they tortured others. I was forced to join in and then my spirit became so dark, I lost myself."

It wasn't incarceration or punishment that led to his recovery, a pastor took him into her home and gave him a safer childhood until he could afford to feel. The greatest cruelty is possible when empathy is diminished and we forget the person in front of us is like us.

Recently, University College London completed research demonstrating that children who are maltreated develop the same neuronal pathways as traumatised war veterans. The children in gangs knew it because they refer to themselves as "soldiers".

Ask any child in a gang what they want. It won't be clothes or riches, it will be safety. Our inability to face this truth remains unbearably sad.

Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder of Kids Company