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The missed opportunities for intervention

Written by  Rachel Wingfield Schwartz (19/12/11)

Whenever a serious injustice is committed against a child by its caretakers there is implicitly a ‘third party’ involved in this abuse. Alongside perpetrator and victim is society – the adults in the world around the child and the institutions put in place to protect the child. The role of the ‘third party’ can either be that of witness and rescuer of the child from the danger they are in. Or the third party can play the role of bystander and perhaps unintentional colluder in the continuing trauma and abandonment unfolding in the child’s life.

Throughout the stories in My Story, the interviewees describe failed attempts by a range of services to intervene in the trauma they were experiencing. They describe even more examples of points where opportunities for intervention were missed altogether by the different services involved in their lives: teachers, social workers, police, courts and the care system.

Each one of these young people was exhibiting well known signals of severe distress in the years leading to their offence, and these symptoms escalated in the months immediately prior to the offence. Two interviewees describe the loss of their father as a turning point in their ‘going off the rails’ shortly before their offences. They were regularly in trouble with teachers and police during this period, and yet no-one around them was able to recognise or act on these obvious signs of profound trauma and grief. Yet it is has been demonstrated that (recent) loss is a key risk factor in grave childhood violence. These two young people went on to be involved in violent offences including murder and false imprisonment.

Another interviewee describes interventions from the age of 18 months, when social services put him on the child protection register. He was on the register as a result of suspicions he had been sexually abused by his father and was exhibiting sexualised behaviour. There had also been incidents in which his mother hung him over a balcony, threatening to drop him, and in which he was left alone wandering outside in the early hours of the morning. He was not removed from the home until the age of seven, by which time his attachment to his mother was very strong, and he had already been found sexually abusing another child. He was told he had to make a choice between going to a boarding school for children with behavioural difficulties, or of being fully removed from his mother’s care, and not allowed to see her again until he was 16 years old.

At boarding school, he was involved in an incident in which he and other boys barricaded an 11 year old girl into her room and, he says, ‘took turns in having sex with her’. When the school finally broke in to the room, they responded by only asking the boys if they would like to have a shower.

At 13, this boy went on to rape a little girl.

As you read these young people’s stories, you will notice yourself how clear the signs were that something was wrong, and the places where intervention might have been possible. The young people we interviewed are aware that there is much to be learned from their stories, by themselves, by other young people in trouble, by services and perhaps most of all, by parents. They are clear that they want to tell these stories, not because they want sympathy, but because they want to contribute to an understanding of how such grave crimes by young people happen.

I would like to end with the words of one of the interviewees, who gives us some moving advice on how we can respond to and learn from these stories.

‘I don’t want people to read it and go “oh, I feel sorry for him”. I mean there’s no need to, I’m perfectly fine. Everything that’s happened to me happened for a reason and it’s made me the person I am today. So I want people to read it and say these are some of the reasons why I got in the situations that I got in because I thought everything was normal, and I didn’t really understand a lot of things when I was young. So maybe, for example, a young parent reads this and then goes, “Oh I’m a bit like his parents”, and then they go, “Well I don’t want my kid going to jail, I don’t want him to feel like how I felt as a kid, I don’t want him going to jail when he’s like 14, 15 for getting involved in a murder or something like that”. So that’s where I’m coming from really.’

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