There’s a lot of different ways of looking at this…

One Possible Scenario: the barest of facts

Boy, 14yrs is walking home after a couple of hours with his friends. He is a good boy. His mother said ‘Be home by 10pm’ and he will be. He hears footsteps behind him. Turning around he sees it is an older boy whom he recognises from school. This older boy left school just a couple of weeks ago. He is almost 16 years old. The older boy may be under the influence of some substance. He challenges the younger boy to ‘stop looking’ at him. The younger boy starts to walk more quickly. There is an exchange of words. The older pushes the younger and the younger boy falls, splitting his forehead and lip on the kerb. The older one flees when he sees the blood. The younger one uses his mobile to call his mother to come get him. Mother seeks immediate medical attention and the police become involved following discussions with the medical staff. The older is arrested and charged the following day.

It may or may not be important (to you) that older boy is from an immigrant family. His parents have recently separated and are low-income. He struggles with English. Younger boy is British. His parents are middle class; they own a successful business and own a large house.

What do you think should happen next?

Allow me the evil of generalisation…

If you’re writing for the Daily Mail you will in all likliehood emphasise the unprovoked nature of the attack; the age differential; that the alleged offender was intoxicated; the primacy of the need for punishment. You will print pictures of the injuries; of the large comfortable home and the concerned respectable tax-paying business-owning sucessful parents. You will mention the non-British origins of the perpetrator. That his parents are seperated. You will write of the percentages of immigrant benefit claimants. You will be indignant that you cannot name the perpetrator.

If you are a UKIP or Conservative Party (or any one of the myriad parties to the right of the political spectrum supporter) you will – in all likliehood – deplore the degeneracy of today’s too-liberal society; bemoan the lack of boot camps and/or national conscription for young offenders and/or the young generally; call for immigration borders to be closed and for withdrawal from the EU. You will be concerned that British streets are no longer safe. You will speak of your fear for your children when they leave your sight. You will be certain that rising crime can and should be dealt with by harsher punishment: longer prison sentences; maybe bringing back corporal punishment; supporting marriage and encouraging mothers to stay at home. You will blame multiculturalism and the hegemony of ‘the left’. You might even quote some religious text – an eye for an eye? – and use that to justify a desire to have the victims have a say in sentencing.

The Guardian might report the incident in a small tucked away column. But most likely will not report at all. If they go for a larger article the emphasis will be on levels of inequality and their impact on crime rates. There will be a nod in the direction of options open to the police and the Procurator Fiscal. The criteria which will be applied when they weigh up those options. There might be some mention of marginalisation of youth in that area where the offence took place. The lack of meaningful work and the divisions in the community. An ‘expert’ in community relations and engagement might be quoted.

The blue-collar ex-Labour voter will tend to agree with the Daily Mail. ‘These foreigners are mucking up everything’. They might reflect that things are not always as reported.

The left-leaning academic will nod at the Guardian but shake their head a bit at the slight hint of middle-class fear in the text. They will agree with the inequality thesis. Social exclusion fosters criminality. What is required are resources to ensure ‘inclusion’ policies are implemented. You know just the right person to do that…

The touchy-feely left-wing Social Worker who happens to pick up the Guardian that day (the stuff of right-wing and Daily Mail nightmares) begins to think of the possible reasons for the older lad’s actions. Maybe he is upset about his parents split; he has lived with domestic violence; he has in fact been the victim of parental abuse; he has a substance misuse problem; he is ‘socially disadvantaged’ (poor, foreign) and socially excluded (poor, foreign, with English as a second language, without friends, suffers a possible illness). Perhaps the younger boy offered provocation. Perhaps this was a case of misunderstanding exacerbated by a language barrier. Perhaps he has an anger management problem. Perhaps he needs a befriender. The younger lad has supportive parents by the sound of the report so no worrying over him.

So, whose moral universe is the ‘correct’ one? Which (of the crude examples) do you find yourself preferring?

Does it change your own assessment of the bare facts to hear the following additional material:
– the older boy has Aspergers
Or the following:
– the younger boy taunted the older boy
Or the following:
– that the younger boy’s mother is regularly beaten by his father and has been throughout the 20 plus years of their marriage. Divorce is out of the question for religious reasons.

How would those facts change the reactions of the cyphers above?

Would charge or prosecution of the older boy serve the public interest? Was the younger boy in need of protection?

I read a report yesterday – in the tabloid my Dad buys ‘because it’s cheap’- and got to thinking. What had the Reporter deliberately chosen to emphasise because it made good copy – or perhaps more significantly – it mirrored and amplified the political leanings of the newspaper and its readers?

I also remembered the volume of cases referred to me in my last job. The child offenders whose offending went hand in glove (without any exception I ever experienced during the near decade I was performing the assessment tasks) with their family circumstances; their poverty and insecurity; their exposure to domestic violence or to physical, sexual or emotional abuse; their low educational attainment or truancy; their poor housing or parental addiction problems… The decision I had to make was a) was there sufficient evidence to substantiate the offence ground or some other care ground and b) whether or not those child offenders required compulsory measures of supervision.

The system in Scotland – the Children’s Hearing System – is based upon a holistic assessment of child need. The Kilbrandon Report established the principle that a child offender was as much in need of care as a child who was offended against – and in fact the two very often went hand in glove.

I don’t condone criminality. I understand that many people survive abuse or deprivations and yet remain law abiding. However a quick look at the Prison statistics will reveal disproportionate numbers of prisoners with mental health problems; with looked after and accommodated backgrounds; with chaotic early lives.

What judicial punishment will succeed where the lifetime of punishments and suffering have failed?

15 thoughts on “There’s a lot of different ways of looking at this…

  1. Well there goes my comfortable middle class Sunday evening (I'm 13 hours ahead of the UK)thoughts. There was a time when I could have offered all sorts of advice and arguments to support a view but now I couldn't even begin to speculate on a solution to the problem never mind a judicial punishment. With age comes a certain cynical feeling of helplessness borne of a lifetime of inability to change the world.

  2. These are tough cases, but I am 100% in favour with the principle that a child offender is in as much need of care as a child who is offended against. I feel so deeply for children who grow up in troubled circumstances. While wrongdoing cannot be condoned, we have to find ways to help rather than just judge and punish.

  3. Who involves the police? Where do discussions with medical staff fit in?
    A. Mother dicusses the incident with them and calls in the police
    B. Mother calls in the police who discuss the incident with medical staff?

    I imagine that their assessment of the injuries will trigger – or not – action against the older boy.

    Bluntly, with the injuries as described I'd put it down to part of growing up.

    However, action is certainly required to rescue children from chaotic homes…and not by putting them in what is laughingly called 'care'.
    A free creche system for young children where they have a stable regime, proper food and opportunity to socialise.
    An after school programme which makes sure that the children have some sort of light evening meal as well as activities.
    Social workers who concentrate on the financial essentials for families with problems.

    And all this while making education a proper education again, which gives children a command of the skills they will need to build their lives.

    Not a complete answer..what can be…but if this society doesn't start to sort out chaotic families (of all classes) we are going to see more and more children betrayed.

  4. Can't comment re other jurisdictions but in Scotland there would be a determination by the police based on evidence substantiating an assault. Parents would be the normal route for this to come to their attention. I've had referrals like this – sometimes because a policeman or woan wanted to get the thing of their desk – sometimes because they genuinely believed that this was the correct route to ensure help for either perp or victim. I'd be tasked with assessing evidence and then need. It's the fact that need has primacy that makes me rejoice.
    I'd request full statements from police and social background reports from social workers. Only when I knew that I have the evidence could I decide whether compulsory intervention in the life's of either child was necessary.
    Cannot agree with your analysis more – the earlier the intervention the better. Scotland has many admirable policies e child protection. Google Kilbrandon and you'll get a flavour of what is poliy and practice here.
    The imperfect bit? A lack of resources. Children don't have votes… (I am a cynic).
    And the emphasis upon the 'minimum intervention' principle can lead to over-cautious inaction by authorities.

  5. Sorry, nit picking becomes a habit…!

    I don't know how universal this was but mother – a childrens' nurse before the war – told me that creches were provided for women working in the munitions factories during the war where the little ones would have games, eat a decent lunch and take an afternoon nap, while clothes were provided by the WVS.
    If Britain could do it in wartime…why not now?

    I suspect the answer is because to our rulers, the children of the underclass arouse no compassion.

  6. To me the most interesting aspect of this post is how the media makes any rational debate on these issues near to impossible. By over-simplifying, stereotyping and often by demonising, it makes progress much more difficult – and in the end it's counter-productive to what we all want.

  7. Absolutely. Cannot agree more.
    Political views intrude and the issue (the welfare of both children) becomes obscured.
    I had a 'conversation' on another blog recently. I was attacked for suggesting that there were many ways of looking at a subject – and for stating that I was uncomfortable with the suggestion that there was 'only one truth'.
    I despair of the way in which incidents or issues are filtered to us through a biased lens. I try not to shy from lessons to be learned – even if they don't fit my personal political outlook – but too often the 'facts' are emphasised or ignored depending on how they support the view of the commentator.
    I'll be as guilty as any other commentator of course!

  8. I understand the impulse GB. But can't stop the urge to pick things apart! I do wish I could – but I'm still full of (teenage and immature says R) 'righteous indignation'!
    I'm hard work sometimes – in other words!

  9. The Scottish system isn't perfect – but it starts from a sensible premiss I think.
    I have honestly never dealt with a case where there were no 'care' reasons which ultimately led to offending.

  10. The earlier the intervention the better for the child – so that wartime creche was fantastically enlightened. Mind you – Robert Owen built New Lanark on the basis that if you lifted people from squalor and gave them good housing, food, wages, reasonable work and medical care and education for their children then you'd get more from them… a benign capitalist! Bucking the trend of the early 19th Century – which would more often view human beings as disposable comodities.
    There are a few projects I'm aware of which prioritise work with vulnerable pregnant mothers – to ensure a better start for the child. They then go onto work with the children via free creche facilities etc.
    It's not just (as far as I can see) the right thing to do morally – but if society chooses to ignore (or financially punish) vulnerable or chaotic families then the damage is never-ending and expensive. It becomes cyclical. With damaged children becoming damaged adults who produce damaged children.
    Shortly after the Coalition were elected there were a series of interviews with Tory politicians regarding welfare benefits. The plan to 'cap' benefits re housing was justified on the basis that 'people shouldn't expect other people to pay for the children they'd irresponsibly brought into the world'. When asked about the impact on the children the answer was: 'I believe that some short term pain for some children is better because soon the message will get through'.
    No compassion. No caring. No ruth. 'Tough love'? No, just blind prejudice and a failure of understanding.

  11. A very good debate in the comments and thank you for setting the issue out in the way you did.

    I believe the offender needs help and support. Punitive regimes do not work in my view.

  12. At your age (don't you just hate it when people say that?) I, too, was still trying to change the world though I was less indignant and my goals were lower than yours. It seems like half a lifetime has passed since then.

  13. Oh the evils of generalisation and how easy it is to whip up a crowd. Not quite the same subject but I was shocked a while back when my mixed-race 14 year old told me Yeah we can't take our schoolbags into the supermarket because we're black. I know, in the UK this regular behaviour but I was (naively) upset to hear my kid already so negatively earmarked – and aware of it. It really makes me want to bring the kids themselves – in your highlighted case – to the fore, have them explain themselves, before being categorised by the law and public opinion.

  14. Oh God. 'Because we're black'? That's outrageous. Sometimes I think there are too many reasons in this world for us to despair, Cat.
    But still we rise. We know life needn't be the ugly way others would have it be.
    In a way what you suggest happens here – if I decided to take a case further (after proving all the legal stuff in court) I'd take it to a Tribunal of three people and the child would 'have their say'. The emphasis (and it was this way even before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) is on the child and the need to hear the child.
    It's not always perfect – but at least its a system which tries.

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