Leading article: Two damaged children and a wider dereliction of duty

A multi-agency approach is too often an excuse to pass the buck

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The sentences passed on two brothers for their vicious attack on two young boys in South Yorkshire were always going to look like a formality, given the magnitude and sadistic nature of the crime. Details of the torment to which the pair subjected a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old shocked even those with long experience of the cruelty a child is capable of inflicting on others. Indeterminate detention, with both boys to serve a minimum of five years, was probably at the lighter end of what was to be expected.

Almost as shocking as the grim details of the crime, however, was the picture that emerged of the home life – if that is what it can be called – of the two attackers. Some in the courtroom shouted after the culprits, as they were led away, that they were evil. They were not; they were two desperately damaged children, who had experienced all manner of depravity and degradation well before their teens.

The transcript of their questioning was telling. The mild physical pain they suffered from beating their victims, and their concern at being found out, was more distressing to both than the extreme harm they had deliberately done. The younger, apparently more hardened child shed tears only when the appalling reality of his family circumstances was recounted.

Nor, for all the Conservative leader's ill-advised attempt to exploit the case to score electoral points, can this attack be seen as evidence of "broken Britain". Extreme juvenile crimes always shock, but they are few and far between. The last one so to horrify the country was the killing of James Bulger, which occurred under a Conservative government in 1993.

In truth, both cases say less about the state of Britain than they say about the many different elements that combine to produce such children and such atrocities. In this case, though, a serious case review conducted for Doncaster Social Services concluded that the attack was "preventable", so highlighting where – apart from with the perpetrators – responsibility lay.

Not only the two boys, but the family as a whole, had long been known to the police and social services. There had, so the court was told, been more than 30 separate chances for the authorities to intervene, any one of which might have halted the descent into violence and criminality that culminated in this attack. Yet none of those chances was taken. Does it not beggar belief that, after so many similar failures over the years, there are still places where the most elementary lessons have not been learned?

The leaders of Doncaster Social Services, who gave a press conference after the case concluded yesterday, seemed very far from appreciating the degree of responsibility they surely bore. An otherwise laudable desire to stand by their staff might explain their reluctance to assign responsibility or name names; they insisted they could investigate individual failings only now that a case review was complete. No, what came across most sharply was the lack – yet again – of anyone really directing the much-vaunted "multi-agency" response.

Was any one professional responsible for decisions made in relation to this highly dysfunctional family? How bad must it get before a child is removed? Was there anyone to stand advocate for the many children here, before – or even after – they came into conflict with the law? With the boys now detained and, it is to be hoped, eventually helped to make a new start, these are the next questions that must be asked.

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