When in doubt, blame the children

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BRITAIN hates itself. The repertoire of hate figures is everywhere, haunting parents, the police, the streets, the best and worst schools, and even the mortuaries. Dangerous children, killer children - they have become the enemy within.

Childhood has become a metaphor for a country that is out of control. Children are victimised and demonised. As the director of a child centre said this week: 'Children are the pit bull terriers of this political season.'

Britain cannot cope. It hides its shame and self-hatred by regarding its young victims as culprits.

Less than 10 years has passed since Tyra Henry, 21 months, and Jasmine Beckford, four, died at the hands of their deadly fathers, their killings opening an epoch of discovery of the dangerousness of childhood. It is as if we have become obsessed with the threats from children, rather than the threats to them.

The latest vigilante is Virginia Bottomley. The Health Secretary has signalled adults' impatience with children's pain, joining a posse of the most powerful men in the country, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, for whom condemnation of children is a mantra. None of the politicians who have called for a crusade against children's crimes has complained about crimes against children.

In a speech to children's charities reported last week, Mrs Bottomley stated her support for the 'concern among the wider public that we may have gone too far in stressing the rights of children at the expense of upholding the responsibilities of parents and those who care for them (children)'. Her statement marked the end of era when the state promised to take the side of children.

Mrs Bottomley embodies the backlash against children. Soon she is expected to publish government guidance on the control of troubled children in care. Her homes will officially rehabilitate the use of physical force to control children or stop them running away.

This is the response to the constraints imposed on carers by the Children Act 1989 and the scandal surrounding pin- down. Restoration of restraint by brute force has been pressed on the Government by institutions whose raison d'etre is power and control.

We know the most dangerous and difficult of the children we lock up - those too young to go to jail for their grave offences - have already endured an excess of control before they ever get into trouble. According to research commissioned by the Prince's Trust, at least 50 per cent already have been physically or sexually abused, and 'the suspected figure may actually be as high as 90 per cent'. The research points to a connection between abuse and children's crimes. These children are the enemy within, the subject of political panic.

Mrs Bottomley's statement on children's rights and her rehabilitation of physical restraint as a means of control of children in care will be a defining moment in the decline of children's rights. It is a retreat from the lessons of the pin- down scandal.

Public institutions have been found guilty in the great children's scandals of the Nineties. The inquiry into the children's mutiny at Ty Mawr community home for boys in Gwent, Wales, in 1991 revealed a butch regime of low-flying brutality.

In the same year, the Social Services Inspectorate criticised the management of children's homes in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. These homes had been controlled for years by senior professionals and councillors of all parties. Councillors claimed that they had been too lax, but the inspectorate's investigation revealed the use of undue force and violence as well as low levels of care and high levels of

absconding. In 1990, the Melanie Klein home for girls at Greenwich, south-east London, was criticised for inadequate care, undue force and alleged sexual misconduct by staff.

Mrs Bottomley's attitude is a symptom of the public's retreat from its awareness of children's pain. Her vaunted vocation as a social worker ended when the new age began.

Her message, indeed Britain's message, is simple: when children don't oblige by being innocent victims, when they are demanding and difficult, when they are awkward accusers, and when they don't care whom they hurt, including themselves, then adults are absolved. No longer ashamed, we blame the victim.

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