Remembering Damilola: The killing goes on, but the fightback is under way

The schoolboy's murder 10 years ago this week sparked a national outcry and a new approach to teenage crime. Now experts warn government cuts could destroy any progress they are making

Andrew Johnson,Nina Lakhani
Sunday 21 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Damilola Taylor was only 10 when he was stabbed in the leg with a broken bottle and left to bleed to death in the stairwell of a south London council estate. The "lively and joyful" football-mad boy, who dreamed of being a doctor, had nothing to do with the gang culture that had been developing on Britain's streets. His death – 10 years ago on Saturday – finally stirred the nation into action. It led to public soul searching and a recognition that something must be done about a problem that had been largely ignored.

"This tragedy is one... from which we have to draw very important lessons," the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said at the time. Yet, in the decade since, at least 138 other teenagers have died on London's streets as a result of gang violence or at the hands of other teens, an audit by The Independent on Sunday shows. Many more children have died in cities across the UK: Rhys Jones, 11, shot dead in a Liverpool car park in 2007; Courtney Eaton, 17, stabbed in Salford in 2009; Cody Turner, 17, stabbed this year in Bolton; Steven Lennon, 17, from Edinburgh, stabbed by a rival teenage gang member in 2005; Abdi Razak, 18, stabbed by a gang in Bristol this year; David Hatswell, 16, stabbed by a 17-year-old love rival in North Wales in 2001. In 2008 alone, 70 teenagers were murdered in Britain.

In the past five years, some 1,500 children under the age of 18 were treated in London hospitals for knife wounds, roughly one a day. In England 3,719 teenagers were treated for knife injuries in the same period, an average of two stabbings every day. Eighty-three of those victims in 2009/10 were under 14. The true number, however, is likely to be much higher. "Shanking" – stabbing someone – has become part of teen gang initiation ceremonies and many victims will not go to hospital.

Childcare experts fear youth violence is moving out of the cities and into the countryside. "Things have got worse over the past 10 years," said Camila Batmanghelidjh of the youth charity Kids Company. "Guns and knives are now in the hands of teenagers as opposed to the adult drug dealers. And kids are no longer stabbing each other in the leg – they now stab to kill. "

Damilola died on the North Peckham Estate: his mother, Gloria, had moved there from Nigeria three months earlier so his sister could be treated in the UK for epilepsy. He was stabbed in the leg as walked home from an after-school computer club at Peckham library and staggered 100 yards to the stairwell where he collapsed, his artery severed. Despite the efforts of passers-by and paramedics, the blood flow could not be stopped. The tower blocks where he died have since been torn down and replaced with low-rise housing. There is also a sports centre – the Damilola Taylor Centre, a lasting memorial to the boy – designed specifically to give young people something to do.

Those who live on the estate, however, say that youth violence remains a problem. "I think it's the same really," said Carol Thomas, 51, a childcare assistant. "They've put new buildings up but it's not improved that much. There are still gangs going around. There was a stabbing outside the new Tesco, and I'm frightened to go there now."

At first glance it seems the lessons Jack Straw talked about have not been learned, despite the myriad schemes, police crackdowns and knife amnesties. Yet among professionals there is optimism. Police, youth workers and local politicians agree that after 10 years, an understanding of why children become involved in gangs and how to tackle the problem has finally emerged.

It is a complicated solution based on long-term investment, early intervention with children as young as three and the much-heralded "joined-up thinking" with different groups learning to work together. Last week, for example, surgeons and the police announced a new collaboration after a successful pilot scheme in which more than 100 NHS hospitals share anonymous information about knife crime victims with police.

But many agencies now fear that this progress could unravel as government cuts take hold. Local authorities, which pay for many youth clubs and youth workers, have already started to make cuts in order to achieve savings of more than £1bn dictated by the Budget. Councillor John Friary, the head of community safety in Southwark, said some initiatives which they know work will be axed. "The problem is they will pay the cost in five years' time and we will lose a generation of young people. It takes years to recover from the decimation of services," said Fiona Blacke, chief executive of the National Youth Agency.

Gary Trowsdale, the head of the Damilola Taylor Trust, points out that 99 per cent of young people do not carry knives and are not involved in crime. The vulnerable kids who could go either way need to be steered away from gang culture by seeing their peers whose achievements are recognised, he said. He is passionate about the Spirit of London Awards, run by the trust, which will have its second awards ceremony on Saturday, the anniversary of Damilola's death.

"There isn't enough investment in positive kids," he said. "I think the anti-knife crime industry has become part of the problem. If this industry is finding a cure it's not a successful one. We need to have youth clubs open. You can't have kids hanging about on street corners."

Sue Fish, Nottinghamshire Police's assistant chief constable, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on knife crime and serious youth violence, said recent initiatives to share information are making a difference. "We now know that early intervention is where we have to start – that is completely different to 10 years ago. We are dealing with poverty, dysfunctional and violent families and poor education."

Commander Steve Rodhouse, the Met Police's lead for serious youth violence, added: "There's an economic case as well as a moral case for early intervention. The cost of incarcerating offenders, medical treatment and rehabilitation is much more than for intervening early."

The Home Office says that it continues to take youth violence seriously. "This year we have provided £4m to local partnerships to support their work in tackling serious violence," a spokeswoman said.

Damilola's father, Richard, says he now wants to move forward and establish a legacy worthy of his son. For him, this is the Spirit of London Awards. He is also adamant, however, that the battle against youth violence must continue. "The threat of cuts has to be addressed. This country is so blessed. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the whole world. The Government cannot cut funding when young people are dying on the street."

Additional reporting by Susannah Butter

Spirit of London Awards – Damilola's legacy

On Saturday, the 10th anniversary of Damilola Taylor's death, a celebrity awards ceremony will see dance troupe Flawless and Alexandra Burke gather at the 02 in London to celebrate the achievements of young people in the arts, music, sport and community activism.

The awards are organised by the Damilola Taylor Trust. Its executive director, Gary Trowsdale, said: "What we're trying to do is show vulnerable kids that if they make the right choices they can get recognised and have a good life. You don't have to be a Premiership footballer."

The scene: Peckham

Damilola died in Blake's Road, after staggering into a stairwell of the North Peckham Estate, where he lived. A sports centre named in his honour serves as a lasting memorial.

The parents: Richard and Gloria Taylor

Damilola's parents were thrust into an unwanted spotlight after their son's death. Richard and Gloria became spokespeople for knife-crime issues and established the Damilola Taylor Trust. In 2002 the Damilola Taylor Centre opened in Peckham. Gloria died in 2008; now Richard focuses on his son's legacy in the shape of the Spirit of London Awards. "The awards are there to encourage young people off the streets. It is a long process of healing for me, so the creation of these awards is like a tonic. Damilola couldn't achieve his ambition to be a doctor so we're giving the chance to other people."

The killers: Ricky and Danny Preddie

The brothers were convicted of the manslaughter of Damilola Taylor in October 2006 and sentenced to eight years in youth custody. Ricky Preddie, who was 13 at the time of the killing, was released in September after serving two-thirds of his sentence, including time in custody and on remand. On leaving Dovegate Prison in Staffordshire he was released into a probation hostel on the outskirts of London. The Home Office said he would be monitored closely. Danny Preddie, 12 at the time of the killing, is also serving a sentence for other offences committed in jail and is due to be released early next year.

The youth worker: Winston Goode

Winston, 39, works with teenage gang members in Lambeth as part of London Youth's Positive Change scheme. He knew Damilola Taylor from youth clubs in Southwark where the youngster played football.

"As far as gangs go, the kids think you're either with them or against them, so it takes months to build up relationships of trust. We're showing young people that there are other options. Hayden has set up a clothing business after our entrepreneurial challenge. If the projects stop, it will force these kids back into crime because they will see no way out."

The reformed tearaway: Francisco Augusto

At the age of seven, Francisco Augusto's life was turned upside down when his friend and football teammate Damilola Taylor was killed. His death was followed by Francisco's parents splitting up and another move to a new school. Together these events filled the little boy with rage he didn't understand and couldn't control. He was excluded from school aged 11 and arrested by police within a year. He could well have been on a path similar to that of the boys who killed Damilola. But he caught the attention of a local youth worker, Roger Jalil, himself only 22 at the time. Through playing football together, Roger became Francisco's confidant as he tried to make sense of Damilola's death, his worsening relationship with his father, and all the anger he couldn't articulate.

Last year Francisco passed 11 GCSEs at grade A to C and hopes to study sociology at university. He hopes to set up his own youth projects and is being mentored by two businessmen after taking an entrepreneurial course with London Youth – all inspired and encouraged by his youth worker. The love and respect between Francisco, 17, and Roger, 27, is uplifting.

"Whenever I remember Damilola, I always see him smiling and playing football," says the teenager. "Even though he was older than me he saw I was having a hard time at school after coming here from Angola, so he took me under his wing and got me playing football. And that's how Roger got me involved, playing football, treating me like his little brother until I started opening up to him.

"If it wasn't for Roger, the Adventure Playground and London Youth, I wouldn't be here now. If people in high society really wanted to stop youth crime then they could, by making sure every young person who needs help has someone like Roger to help them. Every year on the anniversary of Damilola's death I take some time and think about how I can do better the next year, and make his memory last even longer."

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