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Wednesday 10 August 2011


Troublesome children need support, not labelling

By Martin Narey, Director of Barnados, 2008.

I don’t think I’m a soft touch when it comes to children. Twenty three years working with offenders before coming to Barnardo’s, four of them in a Borstal, revealed to me the damage which can be caused by a minority of children and young people. But, the key word here is minority.

And yet, somehow, we have arrived at a point where children; all children; your children and my children, are routinely traduced. Dismissed as worthless they are referred to as 'vermin', 'animals' or 'feral'. If these words were used to describe people who are black, who are gay or those of a particular religious persuasion, there would be uproar. Yet this language is now casually used by people when talking about the youngest and most vulnerable in society.

Today Barnardo’s will be releasing an online film which highlights some of the extreme language that far too many of us use when talking about children. Phrases like ‘shoot a few and if that doesn’t work, shoot a few more’ or ‘let’s sort these parasites out’ are all comments which have been left by members of the public on UK newspaper websites. And these are comments which have not been removed even after the entries have been “moderated” by newspaper editors.

Are these people simply cranks who we should ignore or does this language capture a wider view about children? Sadly, the latter appears to be the case. In a survey, conducted for Barnardo’s by YouGov, over half of the population agreed with the view that British children are beginning to behave like animals with just under half thinking that people are right to describe children as feral because children behave in that way.

When did it become acceptable to condemn all children in this way? When did we stop noticing the sign on the doors of thousands of shops in every type of neighbourhood and across the UK which restrict entry to two children at any one time.

Reflect for a moment if one of those notices referred to a different minority. Yet the overwhelming majority of children in our society lead decent, constructive, generous lives – they attend school, take part in activities and a significant number are volunteers. Nine out of ten 16-year-olds are in some form of further learning and 275,000 young people take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Half of all 16-19 year-olds help in their communities and a third of them formally volunteer.

At Barnardo’s we struggle to cope with the rising number of children and young people who want to give their time freely to help our work. There are of course a few children who are troublesome and who do make life difficult for their neighbours and communities. Those children, and their families need to be made to face up to their actions and some children, I’m afraid, need to be locked up.

But does anyone genuinely believe that a fivefold increase in the numbers of children aged twelve to fourteen whom we lock up is a sensible development. What has happened to us as a society in the last decade or so which means that last year we locked up almost 600 children aged fourteen and under when their incarceration, as recently as 1995, would have been illegal?

It’s certainly not the case that offending by children has increased (the public overestimate by a factor of four, the amount of crime committed by young people) and serious offending by children has, indisputably, fallen during this period. In twenty three years working with offenders I only ever met two child offenders who I did not think were redeemable.

And I always knew – because I did it frequently – that if I took the most vehement advocate for imprisonment to meet children in custody they would leave wondering whether there wasn’t a better way. The reality is that, overwhelmingly, the children we lock up, mostly for futilely short periods, are from the poorest families, have been excluded from school or have been in care.

Our society faces a clear choice - we can either support troublesome children to grow into responsible citizens and valued members of the community or we can reinforce their disadvantage by labelling them, expelling them from school and locking them up – pushing them further to the margins, when they most need our guidance and support.

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