“My 12-year-old son, Darren, is failing at school. He can’t learn, steals, and he plays truant. I am at my wit’s end because last week he drove a stolen car on to the pavement, knocking a toddler off his trike. Luckily, that child was only bruised. He could have died and, as far as I am concerned, that is too close to James Bulger’s experience and nothing to do with joy-riding. His headmaster says he needs a short sharp shock but that is ignoring the fact the fact that I left my ex-husband ten years ago because he physically and sexually abused Darren. If I try to keep Darren in he just laughs at me and walks out. My family say he should be locked up. No-one wants to do anything about him.”
It is very difficult for a parent to acknowledge that damage has been done to her child. Parents usually hope that their own painful life experiences and inner disturbance are adequately dealt with and they want to provide the best environment they are able to for their child. Very few parents intend to hurt their child. One father who physically abused his toddler commented, “It was when he was crying. I could not bear the sound. I stopped being a father and went right back to a memory of my own father beating me for crying when I was tiny”. With treatment, this father was able to be rehabilitated with his family.
We do not know what experiences informed the behaviour of Ms C’s ex- husband. However, we can see a dangerous trans-generational cycle in the process of being formed. Darren was abused by his father at 3 or under and here he is behaving in a way that can endanger a little child. Ms C is right to acknowledge the serious “joyless” implications of that for the toddler. Dr Eileen Vizard, who has pioneered an Adolescent Abuser project, comments “ Darren will have learned that there is no reason to have respect for someone else’s body and he has identified with the aggressor, his father. Through this identification he sees a toddler as a disposable item and repeats an aspect of what was done to him. The targeting of toddlers by child offenders for any abuse is particularly worrying as it suggests a level of encapsulated early trauma that would be difficult to access. It is made harder by Darren’s lack of a good male figure to identify with and requires highly skilled long-term treatment. “
Treatment is the missing ingredient in all the current political discussion about young offenders and from Ms C’s letter it sounds as if it is missing in Darren’s current situation.
Dr Estela Welldon, President of the IAFP comments, “ Unfortunately, all too often, understanding the offender is seen as condoning the crime or excusing the criminal. On the contrary, the object of treatment is to help the offender to acknowledge his responsibility for his acts and thereby to save the offender and society from the perpetration of further crimes. The more we understand about the criminal mind the more we can take preventative action. However, because the offender hits out at society this naturally causes a reaction and it is hard to look behind the action at the cause”.
Faced with disturbed and disturbing behaviour it is not surprising that Darren’s Head Teacher reacts angrily and wants him to experience a “short sharp shock”. Having to deal with children who play truant, steal, joyride and have lost a capacity to learn depletes the energy of many teachers. Indeed, it is not just teachers who lose heart. In the wake of the James Bulger tragedy there is a communal wish to find a simple answer in either locking such children away or punishing them. There is a hope that such action is “doing something” about such awful events. However, all too often we find that the children who engender such desires in us, like Darren, have actually been the victims of long-standing sustained knocks and shocks and further ones simply repeat the process.
Peter Wilson, Director of Young Minds, says. “To properly do something about it, we have to pay attention, as Ms C has, to what people have actually done to children. No child forgets about being hit, abused or neglected. Children are not robots and they remember and it comes out somewhere. They need a chance to have better relationships, new experiences and a chance to think about themselves with people who have some understanding of what it is all about. Locking them up is just further abuse as far as I can see.”
Psychoanalyst and Forensic Psychiatrist Dr Chris Cordess is equally concerned at the limitations of “lock-up” policy. “ The research on locking up juveniles shows very clearly that it has negative effects and produces more criminals. Nor can teachers be expected to cater to the one disturbed child when there are the needs of the whole class. They need to turn to Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Services through the Child Psychotherapy Trust. Unfortunately, for the small number of children where residential care is needed- there are few places and even these are being cut. Peper Harow is a prime example of this. Serious young offenders have nearly all been abused children with adverse environment and we do not provide properly for them.”
It is very noticeable that just at the moment when we are aware of the need for some therapeutic residential provision that offers treatment, a world-renowned therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents like Peper Harow could be closed for lack of funding and similar therapeutic communities with specialist schools like The Mulberry Bush have current vacancies because districts do not want to pay for needed treatment.
Ms C left her husband and cannot seem to stop her son leaving. It is possible that as well as the abuse, Darren has feelings about the loss of his father that have not been dealt with. At the moment it seems as if we as a society are just leaving him and his mother to whatever knocks and shocks come their way with no opportunity or help for understanding and breaking the cycle of disadvantage.