Profile: How Ratboy made his name: A 14-year-old becomes a byword for trouble

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ROBBIE is not his real name, but he is real enough and the name is as real as many of the things that have been said about him. His real name cannot be disclosed because Robbie is a child criminal: at 14, he has admitted 55 offences and has absconded from care 37 times.

There are others like him, but the difference is that Robbie has achieved a level of notoriety that any wannabe stellar gangster might envy; he has become a national celebrity, a symbol of the menace of juvenile crime. And all because, in the search for a catchy soubriquet for a boy whose real name could not be used, a local newsman once called him 'Ratboy'. Robbie's mother hates it. 'He's not a rat. He's my son,' she says.

Robbie has become a symbol almost entirely surrounded by cliches; in reality, very few of those cliches apply. He is not from a broken home; he is not rejected or unloved by his family; he did not grow up in a dysfunctional community or an urban wasteland. Whatever set Robbie off on his life of crime, it is neither obvious nor easily translated into a slogan for a party conference platform.

He was born to a respectable working-class family on what must count as one of Western Europe's most successful public-housing schemes. The estate, in the North-east, is not one where ground-floor flats are boarded up against packs of feral children. The old community was carefully preserved when the place was redeveloped; trees were planted on a lavish scale and the architecture is imaginative and sympathetic. There is hardly a spray-painted slogan to be seen. Until lately, there was work, too, in the area - skilled jobs in the shipyards or in the defence industries and the promise of a trade to learn and a future for the children. Now there are no more trades: that went in the Eighties. Now there is no more future there than anywhere else in the North-east, but the effects are not yet deep enough to bring the social disintegration some neighbouring areas have suffered.

Robbie's family lives modestly, but respectably, in a house on one of the small, green streets in the estate. There were two more children after Robbie and, though their father has been on a sick pension for many years, their mother has steady work as a chambermaid. Their house, with its customised front door, is comfortable and well appointed. Their third child was a blond and blue-eyed little boy whose angelic looks were heightened by the fact that he was small for his age. Until he was 10, he was no different from hundreds of others.

Now he is famous, there are several versions of the beginnings of Robbie's criminal career. Some believe him to have been bent on crime from the start. Others say the system let him down - it should never, they complain, have been allowed to get so far. But how it started - the truanting, car crime, petty theft - is the subject of some controversy. His mother, who has given the matter some thought, can identify no family crisis, no bullying, no change in routine - nothing she can blame for the fact that one day her son became a persistent truant. On the estate, where he has become a legend, some talk of Robbie as a loner, a boy who didn't need the stimulus or approval of other boys to commit his crimes. Others think he just fell into bad company. 'I'll tell you how it began,' says one local businessman, a man who takes a keen interest in the moral health of the estate. 'It was because he was just a little lad and the bigger boys used him. You see those little windows that all these houses have? They would put him through those windows.'

He is now a well-known figure in the local police station, where he first 'came to notice', as the official phrase has it, when he was 10, for burglary. He was cautioned. For 85 per cent of the boys who 'come to notice' at that age, says the local police inspector, a caution is enough. Robbie, though, did not not respond. For a while it seemed as if he had been frightened back to school, but a year later - another year of truanting - he was back to get another caution.

His parents, say the police, were always supportive of the law's efforts to bring Robbie into line. But come the second caution, although they had neither given up nor rejected him, they did not know what else to do to make him behave. They volunteered him for local-authority care for 18 months. None of the places to which Robbie was referred was secure, and he rarely stayed long enough to benefit from any regime. He simply absconded. And when he absconded, he returned home - not to his family, where he knew his parents would hand him back, but to the estate, to his familiar territory and his friends. The inspector soon learnt to tell when Robbie was back - he was a one-child crime wave.

Robbie's speciality was burglary, in particular burglary of the homes of the elderly. It did not make him popular on the estate and the word began to get round that there were people looking for him, other than the police. 'All these old people that he breaks into,' says the inspector, 'they have sons and daughters. And they get angry.'

But even those who regard Robbie as an infernal pest admit he was never violent. Nor did he steal a great deal, according to the inspector. He took small sums of cash, where he could find it, an occasional video. Mostly he stole food. If one of his victims disturbed him, he ran away. A 71-year-old woman drove him off by spraying hairspray at him. Others just switched on the lights. The police generally caught him pretty quickly: they knew his haunts and his friends and there was a pattern to his behaviour. He was always polite and co-operative when he was arrested. 'He knew the form, of course,' says the inspector. 'He was familiar with all the procedure and he always admitted what he'd done.'

Robbie's career under public care has not been a complete failure: there was an interlude at the Arrow Project in Cumbria when he responded well to a vigorous regime of outdoor sport. But the project was closed down and he was back in more humdrum surroundings. Earlier this year, he seemed to be benefiting from a school in Essex, but his lapses of behaviour led the school to ban him. Last November he was sent into care out of the area. He came back on Christmas leave and the phone began to ring at the local police station. Robbie was arrested and charged with a number of burglaries and was due to appear in court in February, but went missing again in January. By then he had already absconded more than 30 times and police exasperation was growing.

Thus far, Robbie's story is only mildly exceptional. 'He is no worse than half a dozen others,' says the inspector. Better handled, perhaps he would have straightened out, despite the glue-sniffing and the beginnings of other drug problems. But in February, things took a different turn. After the usual few days' search, the police had found Robbie in a ventilation duct on the estate - a warm spot in the building that was occasionally used by vagrants, to the irritation of the residents. Robbie had not been living there, he said - he had enough friends and relations not to need to - but had hidden there when the police were looking for him.

After his arrest, a crime reporter on the local evening paper ran a piece on this persistent juvenile offender and the police exasperation that he could not be confined. There was a certain appeal to his case - the image of a hardened teenage criminal hiding in a ventilation duct was obviously good copy. And since the newspaper could not print the child's name, they resorted to a nickname - Hole-in-the-Wall Boy they called him.

They were not very impressed with that in one of the local news agencies that are in fierce competition for the attention of the national press. They thought it more than a bit clumsy, so when they rewrote the story they were looking for something a bit catchier. 'Ratboy,' someone in the office suggested. Ratboy it was.

Next morning, 'Ratboy' was the lead story in a popular national tabloid. The police obligingly posed beside his hiding place, and Robbie's exploits were rapidly inflated in the popular press into the archetype of the mythical outlaw - the fugitive in a secret underworld, a maze of tunnels beneath the urban landscape, a creature whose identity combined elements of the Ninja Turtle and the sewer rat.

Robbie became the symbol of juvenile crime, blamed locally for every burglary and available nationally to anyone who had a point to make about the system. And there were plenty of people with points they wanted to make about the system. 'He is being given the kind of attention you might expect a serial killer to get,' says the deputy head of local social services. 'It was his misfortune to become Exhibit A at a moment when there was an intense public debate between the police, the courts and the politicians about the working of the Criminal Justice Act. It was nothing to do with the gravity of his offences.'

The police, say social workers, are frustrated because the Act removed the possibility of giving 14-year-olds custodial sentences, and the secure care units in which a child like this could be kept do not exist. Last week, Robbie was taken to Birmingham, where he will be confined with some of the most disturbed and violent children in the country. 'If there is one thing we can be sure of,' says the social services spokesman, 'it is that all the research shows that custodial sentences are counter-productive. There is an 80 per cent recidivist rate and children who have served custodial sentences are more likely to commit violent offences.'

'This is a 14-year-old,' says a senior social worker, 'whose needs have not been met for some time. Sending him to prison will make him worse.' Even the police, who want him out of the way, agree it might not be the best thing for him. 'The most pathetic part of this story,' says the inspector, 'is that here we all are, all the agencies, the Government, the police . . . and we can't deal with one 14-year-old boy.'