There have always been delinquent and murderous children, often coming from the margins of our society. But the evidence suggests that the margin is getting wider and its extreme edge more outlandish. The explanations offered in the media span 'causes' from the 'underclass' at one extreme to 'nasty videos' at the other. What is not recognised is that all 'causes' are linked in an interdependent ecology of deviance of which detected and prosecuted crime is only one aspect.
We know that persistent young offenders are more likely to come from poor and broken families, from dismal estates where there is a high incidence of parental adversity. These children tend to be mistreated, to have poor schooling histories, difficulty with social relationships and specific psychological features. They drift into trouble with other youngsters. To sustain their social, psychological and material 'needs', they gradually become involved in active and persistent criminality. The more disordered of them are also likely to have some genetic or constitutional vulnerability, compounded by abuse. Often, the help they receive is ill-focused, partial and short-range, certainly not enough to stop their anti-social activities.
While the statistics are open to various interpretations, the number of young people 'processed' by the courts has dropped, partly because of deliberate attempts by police, social services and courts to keep youngsters out of the courts. This policy is sometimes effective and the offender manages to get back on the straight and narrow. But diverting young offenders away from traditional social and legal institutions does not address the fundamental factors associated with persistent deviant behaviour. Crime committed by young people is burgeoning, not only in numbers but also in range, intensity and quality. As a group, youngsters now commit the most burglaries and car thefts for joy riding and burning. They are also probably responsible for a third to a half of all sexual offences against children. Whilst murders are rare, the number of youngsters found guilty of rape, arson and aggravated robbery has risen significantly. However, many more young people display a sense of hopelessness and anger which makes them implacable. Their experiences seem to have given them a hard shell and made them resistant to therapeutic work.
The reasons lie in the way the factors of social environment, family, parenting, social control and individual psychological make-up interact. In a 'go-getting' society designed for successful people there are more adversities in terms of poverty, unemployment, poor environmental amenities, education and health that can affect these youngsters. They even find it more difficult than others to gain access to the services that could help them because they and their families are troublesome and often unco-operative.
In such families, man-woman partnerships are more easily formed and dissolved than ever before. Children are no longer the central concern of their parents but part of a wider 'balance sheet' of trading between the partners and others. More important, marginal families, less competent at dealing with stress and adversity, often find their children's demands unbearable and react inconsistently, with harshness, collusion, indifference or outright rejection.
Parenting entails not only care but the setting of fundamental boundaries. Some parents find it difficult to do this or - even worse - having done so, to enforce them. Parents' casual relationships provide the children with confused role models. Fatherless families, increasingly common, are particularly prone to producing angry and violent children. This is where video nasties and television come in. Children who have no internal boundaries rely on external stimulation to guide their behaviour towards what is and is not acceptable. According to the most fundamental law of human behaviour, all activity that has a purpose is aimed at seeking gratification or avoiding unpleasantness. Even a superficial analysis of our current social conditions shows that these young people have very little to lose and much to gain from deviant and criminal behaviour.
The whole thrust of our legislation and professional services has been to treat them with more 'understanding' and, therefore, leniency. Unfortunately, understanding - though necessary for intelligent action - is confused with 'justification', which removes or mitigates guilt. If guilt is not established, responsibility cannot be; the action cannot be 'wrong' and the necessary, and painful, change of behaviour seems not to be justified. This is the sense in which the Prime Minister was right to ask for 'less understanding'.
Even when the youngster goes through the courts and is identified as needing help, that help is based mainly on talking and lacks coherence. Any proper treatment must address the child's ideas, feelings and behaviour patterns whilst ensuring that he or she does not get into further trouble. Anti-social behaviour must be discouraged and socially responsible activity encouraged. This rarely happens.
Even in children's establishments, the staff are often ill-trained, confused and, above all, not sufficiently supported when they try to set and enforce boundaries. They are barred from asserting adult authority for fear of complaints.
The Department of Health is the chief architect of regulations that have massively undermined adult authority in dealing with delinquent youngsters. The latter often have the controlling power now, as anyone who deals regularly with them would confirm. Any family therapist knows that when a child is in control the result is explosive: the child will push with ever grimmer and stranger behaviour until adult authority is re-established.
No complex problem can be resolved quickly and a damaged human being cannot be made whole. The damage can only be modified, but this takes time. Locking up youngsters may incapacitate them for a while, but is not sustainable unless confinement is used as part of continuing help. Nor is punishment likely to help, because youngsters have been so often and inconsistently punished that they simply expect it. To make any punishment effective by itself, it would have to be so harsh as to be beyond the pale of a civilised society. In any case, our national tendency to be punitive is part of these children's problem. There must, however, be sanctions for wrongdoing and these must be an integral part of treatment. They are only effective, though, if combined with rewards for pro- social behaviour. Such behaviour must be made more rewarding. There are many ways of achieving this. They may not sit easily with market-orientated or 'anti- welfare' policies, but they make sense when set against the economic and social costs of juvenile crime.
Above all, we need to reassert adult authority over children and do so through a compact which entitles them to our generous help in return for their orderly and pro-social behaviour. Stressing rights without corresponding responsibilities is a recipe for the disorder we increasingly face. Removing responsibility from youngsters who know they are creating mayhem and writing off offences in the interests of diverting people from the judicial process is an abysmal way of promoting such a compact.
It is almost an article of faith for me never to despair of individual children, but I foresee an ascending spiral of disordered and grimly anti-social behaviour. Every known factor associated with such deterioration is escalating. Unless we address the issues, our prospects as a peaceful country are terrible beyond measure.
The author is director of the Aycliffe Centre for Children and honorary professor of Psychology at the University of Hull.
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