This is a true story. It’s a story of how everything is connected and why we need to think about the way we look after our kids.
You want to know how adults screw up then read this. A couple of months ago, late in the evening I was watching TV. Our new house overlooks the park. Like a lot of houses in London it’s the ‘good’ real estate opposite the council flats. I had gone downstairs to make a cup of tea and there he was an intruder. I am not sure what went through my mind at that exact moment but it was something like this. If I scream he might kill me. He tries to hide in the corner. He might stab me now as I recognise him. But reactions are strange. I step forward a little. It’s a kid, about 16 years old. He runs out the back towards the park and it is only then I scream. I am not sure whether I deliberately gave him time to escape before I screamed but I think I might have. Because he’s a kid. A scared kid. That’s what I told my husband while I was dashing out to warn the neighbours. “Rick, it’s just a kid, a silly kid.”
So the police turn up and they have detained someone they think is his ‘look out’. Usual story. Nobody saw him do anything but he ‘looked dodgy’ said someone. Yes he was black and wore a hoody. Police say they can tell a dodgy guy miles away, the majority of the time they are right. The majority of the time they are black, the majority of the time they are care leavers.
Myth: Policemen are bad. I always thought so. I never really liked them. As an activist I associated them with beating me up during peaceful demonstrations, a tool of the Italian right wing. This policeman is a normal, nice bloke. He’s got two kids. And he gets it. You can see he’s torn between being a policeman for me and understanding the sad reality of what is unfolding with these kids. The detective is a good bloke too. Like his colleague he really gets it: he is genuinely interested in making things better. He knows the sensational media stuff about crime and kids doesn’t tally with the reality. He knows it’s part of a long chain of neglect that authorities, lawmakers and other adults are responsible for.
He has no tools to make it better. So he’s frustrated at the system, the length of time courts take to make decisions, the amount of money wasted on bureaucracy that don’t help either young offenders or society. It’s a joke he says commenting on the routine of detaining these kids for a night, getting a lawyer to tell them to say ‘no comment’ (and maybe a translator for many do not speak English) and then they go back to their normal life as neglected foster kids.
I’m aware that the policeman in front of me and his colleagues risk their lives every day for little more than the minimum wage. That’s not right either. The guy they’ve detained is an illegal immigrant. That’s a mess right there. What are his options? The detective tells me about the vicious circle of neglect, poverty and violence. Nobody cares about these kids. They steal. They go to jail for three months. When they come out they have no alternative. They do have a few more tricks learned in jail from the serious criminals so the cycle continues. The policeman says the courts are too slow and have no idea how to deal with these kids. He despairs and thinks the sentences should be longer so at least they are off the street, even if they are in jail. He is trying to make the best of a mess. The fact that he contradicts himself by saying they have probably already spent too much time with social services and the system, is understandable. All these kids get told is what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but as we all know, you can’t do it without love. And that is one thing they will never have.
Jail, says the detective, is like a training course, paid by the taxpayer. He also tells us about what he thinks is the best example of the failure of the system. A young guy he knows well. Care leaver, abused and neglected at home, a string of foster carers (sounds familiar?), now in a council hostel. He started with with basic street robbery at shopping malls around Christmas last year. Of course he was caught- he’s no professional. It took the courts 7 months to convict him. Meanwhile he’s moved up the crime ladder and is now into ‘knife crime’. Again he’s been caught a few times. But the detective thinks it’s now too late for him, he is in the system and there is no way out now.
He observes that when you watch the CCTV images of this kid stabbing other kids or doing nasty things (always to kids the same age, which surely must tell psychologists something) he looks like the most evil person in the wold. And then you sit down and interview him. He is a pleasant, even amusing young kid who will one day get stabbed, probably fatally, because he never got a chance. That, he said, is likely to be the fate of my intruder. A scared, unintentional criminal who has no alternative.
But as he says. People don’t want to see that. The government doesn’t and the media finds it easier to say we have a crime epidemic. No, what we have is a neglect epidemic. A society that punishes kids for being unwanted and unloved. What do you really expect them to do? Because although it was my house that was broken into, I know exactly why the kid did it. ‘The’ kid. He doesn’t have a name. But then he doesn’t have a home. Or parents. He’s nobody’s kid. But actually he is. He’s our responsibility. But the couple of hours the policeman, the detective, my husband and I have just spent talking about him is about as close to real care that’s he’s going to get.
So jail doesn’t work, neither does the care system, or leaving these kids to themselves. Where is it all go so wrong? I am sure everyone meant well when setting up the care system, the justice one, the Police one. But we have failed miserably to have any effect other than the multiplier one. We have failed and continue to fail ten of thousands of children who turn into young offenders by which time it’s too late. And in doing so we fail society as a whole.