It is easy in the wake of the appalling case of the children tortured by two 10- and 11-year-old brothers, to talk in terms of a broken society and pure evil. And it is true, as an OECD study suggested this week, that childhood in this country is more troubled than in most other nations of Europe. But it is also important to remember that child violence as severe as the sadistic case in Doncaster is extremely rare. The Bulger case was 16 years ago. Mary Bell's murderous tale happened more than 40 years before this one.
It is worth reminding ourselves of that. And also of the fact that the overwhelming majority of children who are brought up in circumstances similar to those suffered by these two boys do not respond in the same way to the challenges presented by their unpromising environment.
Yet such extreme cases shock us doubly because, as a nation, we fear that they may just be the grossest manifestations of a far wider social malaise that breaks through into the wider consciousness of the nation in incidents of juvenile knife and gun crime. And there are wider problems which need addressing. The OECD report showed that the proportion of children living with both parents is lower in the UK than anywhere in the industrialised world apart from the United States, and that levels of under-age drunkenness and teenage pregnancy are at their highest here. These are all revealing indicators.
No child is born evil. But many are born into homes where dysfunctional parents transmit their inadequacies to a new generation. There are too many children in that category for them all to be taken into care – and, anyway, the evidence suggests that local authority care would not produce the best outcomes for the majority. But earlier interventions are needed all round by the social services – from increased nursery support for single mothers at the lowest level to removing more children from parents who are not merely inadequate, but profoundly damaging. It is children who are victims of violence who all too often become perpetrators of violence themselves.
There are questions for the police too. The terror inflicted by these two boys on the estate where they lived made many local people fear that the rights of violent children now take precedence over those of the neighbours they intimidate. The police should press social services for action on care proceedings in such cases.
Greater focus is also needed on problem areas. Just a month before these two boys were arrested, Whitehall sent in a new management team to take over the social services department at Doncaster where seven children had died in council care. That move was too late to prevent the suffering in the current case, but it may prevent similar cases in the future. The child torturers of Doncaster should not scare the nation into a moral panic. But they do remind us of society's duty to break the inter-generational cycle of deprivation from which they grew.