Camila Batmanghelidjh: When a child commits a crime, the truth is we're all responsible

Friday 26 September 2008 00:00
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Society is keen to hold children accountable for crime. In the name of justice, force and chemicals are used to achieve compliance: Prisons, Asbos and some 460,000 prescriptions of Ritalin a year, some of it for children who suffer attention disorders, but most of it for those who feel uncontained and legitimately chaotic in the face of unbearable life challenges. Criminal children are costing £280,000,000 in custody. At any given time, 3000 children are in custody. 80 per cent of them reoffend.

The questions is this: when children do harm, whose crime is it? In court will stand the child who committed the offence, but a more catastrophic injustice remains unredressed. The crime of those who allow childhood in Britain to be so destroyed that vulnerable children are left to simply survive it.

I anticipate the indignant response of those who believe progress has been made. But what is it worth when complacency allows 552,000 children a year to be referred to Child Protection, with capacity to register only 30,700 of them for often inconsistent help?

At the moment we are pursuing a case through the courts: an abused child who wants to kill herself because she can't get the right help. The civil servant did not intervene. The minister passed the buck. It goes on. The biggest killer of all is the "vanilla moment" when professionals stay quiet for fear of humiliating colleagues. Neutrality is killing aspiration to protect children and as politicians jostle for position, young people look on and see no point in pro-social allegiance.

If we want the level of violence to diminish, first we have to communicate the importance of human life. It's not a lesson of morality; preciousness of life has to be emotionally experienced and practically realised. In writing off one person, we facilitate violence as a repercussion. The crime begins with adults who fail to be passionate about quality care. 30,000 children on a waiting list for mental health intervention is a travesty. But adults get away with it because ultimately the child carries the punishment.

The injustice is infuriating, and, even if we don't want to admit it, it is making killers of us all.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of Kids Company, gave The Children's Society Edward Rudolf Lecture last night

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