What's Gone Wrong? How families can prevent delinquency: Studies show that abusive and inadequate parents distracted by poverty are to blame for juvenile crime, writes David Utting

David Utting
Sunday 28 February 1993 00:02 GMT

IN A locked classroom at one of Her Majesty's young offender institutions burglars, joy-riders, fraudsters and other criminals were earnestly discussing the best way to handle a toddler's temper tantrum. Encouraged by their tutor, they agreed that calm reasoning and humour were more likely to succeed than shouting or hitting the child.

Those involved were all young fathers or about to become so, and they found the comparisons with their own upbringing instructive. As Rob, an 18-year-old car thief with a string of convictions, put it: 'Slappin' is all me Mum and Dad ever done to me - and look what happened.'

Parent training courses like this - at Deerbolt in County Durham - are a rare attempt to grapple with what the Home Office describes as 'the roots of criminality'. An improved understanding of their paternal responsibilities may make these young men less likely to commit further crimes. But the real target is the next generation. If one of your parents is a persistent offender, the odds that you will be in trouble with the law are raised significantly. Thus, by teaching these young men how to care for their children, the tutors are trying to prevent the emergence of new 'problem families'.

People do not need academics to tell them that juvenile crime has something to do with the way children are brought up. 'I blame the parents' has always been a popular cry. Opinion surveys show that voters are much more inclined to attribute record crime rates to irresponsible families than to government. But we need to separate reality from prejudice.

We tend to assume that, because the crime rate has risen so alarmingly, it must be intimately linked to the other dramatic social trends of the past 30 years - working mothers, soaring divorce rates and one-parent families. But the evidence for such links is often weak or inconclusive or even in the opposite direction to the one we expect. For example, the only study that found a strong connection between working mothers and children's later delinquency showed that working- class boys were less likely to develop criminal tendencies if their mothers went to work - possibly because their families enjoyed greater financial security.

Divorce, too, is a misleading indicator. It is marital conflict that really upsets children, the research suggests. That can develop long before - and regardless of whether - parents finally make the break.

Living with a lone parent is by no means a social disaster for children. True, analysis of more than 50, mostly American, studies has concluded that delinquent behaviour could be 10 to 15 per cent more prevalent in homes broken by divorce. But the analysis also showed that divorce was more likely to lead to truancy, smoking and running away from home than to genuine law-breaking. And, in Britain, a Home Office survey of 14 and 15-year-olds found nothing to support a view that one-parent families were specially 'criminogenic'.

If anything places children in one-parent families more at risk, it is poverty. Seven out of 10 lone parents with dependent children receive Income Support. Low family income, inadequate housing and other signs of social deprivation have all been linked to delinquency. A survey of Newcastle children, for example, found that 60 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls from 'multiply-deprived' families went on to acquire criminal records - roughly double the average.

But how does low income affect children's behaviour? The answer seems to lie in the way that poverty can detract from parents' ability to exert a loving and effective influence over their children's development. There is an impressive volume of research highlighting the role of parenting as a force for preventing delinquency. This seems specially true during the first nine or 10 years of a child's life, before the influence of friends starts to rival that of the family. The bonds that affectionate parents forge with their children in those pre-adolescent years can later, as one criminologist puts it, make them 'psychologically present' when the temptation to commit crime appears. Forming such relationships may be more difficult for a woman who has never had a permanent partner but almost everything depends on the individual and her circumstances.

Abusive, neglectful, inconsistent or merely passive parents loom large in the lives of over- aggressive two-year-olds and of seven-year-olds who hit, lie and steal, the researchers have found. The same is true of older children who have already started to offend. Two weeks ago, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation published a survey of typical clients in which unsupportive families, abuse and poor relations with parents or step-parents emerged as much the most frequent social background factors. A young thief 'has major problems in self-control resulting from total lack of parental involvement'; a 23-year-old with 11 convictions since the age of 13 has a 'violent home background, (in which) physical abuse led to behavioural problems'. The probation officers' case histories abound with such comments.

ONE OF the most detailed criminological studies ever mounted - following the lives of 400 boys from the East End of London since the early Sixties, when they were eight years old - has come to similar conclusions. One in five was convicted of one or more criminal offences as a juvenile; one in three had offended by the age of 25. Those most likely to be convicted were children whose parents had been been identified from the start as cruel or as poor supervisors or as erratic in their discipline. The co-ordinators of the study, Donald West and David Farrington from Cambridge University, have concluded that, if we want to prevent crime, we must tackle parental child-rearing behaviour alongside economic deprivation and school failure.

As the late Mia Kellmer Pringle, the founder director of the National Children's Bureau, put it: 'Modern parenthood is too demanding and complex a task to be performed well merely because we have all once been children'. We need to find ways of helping young and vulnerable parents without stigmatising them or their children as potential criminals - because blame can only deter those who need help from seeking it. In the United States, the Oregon Social Learning Project has had considerable success in persuading the parents of children with severe behaviour problems to exert effective, but non-violent, discipline.

Yet some of the promising British schemes hang by slender threads of public and charitable funding. This is true of the parent training organisation, Parent Network, and of Home-Start, which supports inexperienced parents in their own homes. The same is true of good pre-school education which, according to evidence from the US, gives disadvantaged children a head start that reduces delinquency later.

The costs of all these things seem insignificant when set against the bill that the nation annually pays as the consequence of crime. The criminal justice system alone - police, courts, probation and prisons - costs more than pounds 8bn to administer. Yet, as news of the drop in police clear-up rates has emphasised, it is unlikely that more than four out of every hundred crimes end in the offender being caught, cautioned or convicted. Talk of crime prevention often amounts to demands for more policing, more security devices, more ways of locking up offenders. But tackling the social roots of crime should prove far more cost-efficient. And it probably offers our only long-term hope of containing crime.

David Utting is co-author of a report on Crime Prevention and the Family to be published this year by the Family Policy Studies Centre.

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