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The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
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Monday, 1 February 2010

The solutions are already out there

The media coverage of the Doncaster boys who abused two other children has drawn vast and varied comment – but most of it has one thing in common - the need to blame. It has to be someone’s fault, the reasoning goes, so let’s find who it is and then we can all rest. Some are blaming the social workers, others the parents, then we have the politicians- they must have something to do with it, or maybe it was the Mayor for appointing a pie man to run its children’s services.

But when the blood letting is over, when anger has subsided, will we be left with a sustained desired to really understand the problem and in doing so find a solution?

Thankfully the media is moving on from simply demonising the two perpetrators of these appalling crimes. There is at last a willingness to ask why did these boys turn out like this? Research is revealing that neglected children have not had the nurturing experiences needed for areas of the brain to develop that enable them to control their emotions and behaviour. But then doesn’t it make sense that if a child is brought up with little care or respect, they may not know how to care or respect others. If they have been treated more like a thing than a human being, it seems fairly obvious that they may have learned to treat others as things rather than human beings. And if they are shouted at, abused, and their feelings ignored, they may become adept at shouting, fighting, abusing and disregarding the feelings of others. A little reflection and a desire to understand leads anyone to these conclusions.

So we trace the problem back one generation, and find that the parents of these anti-social children were neglectful – but then how did the parents become so dysfunctional? If we use the same reasoning we find two grown people who may well have been damaged from their own neglected childhood. It seems to me that if your aim is just to find someone to blame, you will always get the satisfaction you seek. But you may not find the solution. The solution lies in our willingness to understand, and to exercise one or our greatest human assets – empathy. When I worked with children in care 30 years ago, as a residential care worker – at first, try as I might, I couldn’t stop being judgemental of the children’s bad behaviour, until I got to know the home life they had come from – and then I couldn’t help wondering how I would have turned out if I had been through these young peoples experience of life. I thought about it for a while over cups of tea, on long drives or bracing walks and I came to my conclusion: taking into account my ability to get very angry about injustice and any form of parental heavy-handedness, I think my behaviour would have been much worse than the children I was working with. If you were to reflect on this same question, if you were to imagine yourself brought up in a chaotic, neglectful and violent household, how do you think you would have turned out?

Look at the pattern – as a group, offenders have lower literacy levels, and poor mood control leading to anger management problems than the rest of the population. Neglectful upbringing commonly leads to impaired brain functioning that results in poor mood control affecting the ability to concentrate in school, self-modify behaviour or develop empathy – which wrecks the ability to do well in life and have good relationships. Children who suffer abuse or neglect in childhood are more likely to become offenders. Some believe that neglect and abuse damages a child early and permanently. Yes, there are windows of time in our development that are primed for us to absorb deeply and become imprinted by our environment – for good or bad. But research also suggests the brain is much more plastic than we ever thought and has vast capacity to learn, unlearn and move on. Some may need more patience and support than others, but people can move on and grow. It all depends how far we are prepared to go to understand and help those whose life experience has been so much less fortunate than our own. At any point we can fall back on the short-lived satisfaction of judging others or we can take time to reflect a little, try to understand, put ourselves in another’s shoes.

And where will all this compassion lead? There is always the worry that if we reduce in any way the punishment we meter out for criminal behaviour there won’t be any discouragement for crime. But if we really want to cure the problem, perhaps its time to look around and see that we already have some exceptional resources – people Like Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder of the Kids Company. Or Maura Jackson, who has worked to create turn-around environments to help women reduce re-offending through Home Office initiatives. Or Dan Hughes who has done so much to create successful therapeutic approaches for neglected children. There are other grass roots workers doing exceptional work in Youth Offending teams – like Denbigh in North Wales – or Parent Support Advisors self organising to set up innovative groups to help failing children – like the team in Somerset. Or staff in Family Intervention Projects around the UK. Just browse the coalition members on this site and see how much commitment and compassion there is out there making a difference. Not to mention the innovative prison workers, social workers, chaplains and volunteers who are quietly doing amazing work unknown to the rest of us, day after day helping to turn peoples lives around. There may not presently be enough of these people, but they are there.

If politicians and media focussed their attention on seeking out these innovators in social care and therapeutic interventions, it wouldn’t take too long to find what works and how best to train practitioners in these approaches. The solutions are already out there. Granted, the scale of the problem is large and has probably been steadily building for generations. But the very existence of innovative workers who know how to effect lasting change in people who have been given up on by the rest of society gives us reason to be very optimistic.

Wendy Marshall
Hope Mountain

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