Jon Venables.March 10, 2010
When I was a social worker, I worked with young people over the age of 11. I have also worked with young children. Working with young ‘people’, and working with young children- very very different.
I worked with Looked After Children. My job with them- to work to support them in their lives, act as a corporate parent. My other role, to manage the after effects of the abuse they suffered. Working in this area is not that stressful. The state shares parental responsibility for them, that responsibility brings with it a responsibility to financially support them. That responsibility also means questions are asked if they do reoffend. It is fairly easy to get resources for these children.
With young children it is fairly easy to get resources, young kids are cute, the effects of their abuse have rarely become apparent. In some cases, the behaviours shown by Venables and Thompson with James Bulger, are seen in much younger children-usually precipated by severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
I have worked in other teams with over 11’s, where many of the kids should have been in care long ago= but the opportunity passed. It is not so easy to get resources for these kids.
They are left in situations, which if they were cute and marketable- would be seen as abhorrent. Long term brutalisation and neglect, mean that THEIR behaviour is what warrants social services intervention. Society would quite like these kids to disappear, because they are a bit of a drain, and a stark reminder of what happens when society fails.
The state describes them as children in need. The threshold at which the state will consider them to be at risk, is much higher than for younger children. So no financial responsibility. Ergo- inadequate resources to manage them.
What I learned in this job, is that teenagers are sometimes difficult to work with. You are talking about kids, where the foundation upon which they built their lives, has been brutalisation, sexual abuse, and neglect, at the age where the effects of that abuse are becoming apparent.What makes this difficult work impossible, is the attitude to these children from the rest of society.
We had a ‘wall of fame’ in our office. A wall of tabloid, and local newspaper clippings, with our kids on it. Each headline represented a case where simplistic analysis of the problems we were dealing with, had been seized on by hacks, looking to make cheap political shots out of the lives of young people. I daren’t think of how much work was flushed down the toilet because of these reports.
Watching a 13-year-old, who has worked for over a year, to stay at school, to not offend- in the hope of getting a place on a group holiday, and seeing the press undermine that in one attempt-by calling it rewarding offenders. Working with specialist foster carers, who can do the work with a young person to reduce the risk of them offending, can give them the thing that they need- but have to refuse because some vigilante will pick up on the child being there. Turning on Jeremy Kyle, and seeing a chat show host undermine 5 months of work, after getting your clients pissed, and having his researchers egg them on- so that they can be baited live on television. Not fun.
I have had cases where kids as young as 4, 5, 6, showed behaviour which mirrored Venables and Thompsons. Their behaviour patterns, an expected consequence of abuse. A consequence to be managed. I have worked to manage the risk of teenagers who were likely to abuse other children. Many of the parents of these children and young people, continuing the cycle of abuse they themselves suffered.
Children. With a child’s understanding. Childish perception, and the consequences of abuse, are not happy bedfellows.
This is not true in all cases. I myself am a care leaver. There is individual responsibility, but the question of responsibility arises when someone is old enough to actually understand it.
When these children come into contact with the criminal justice system, that contact is supposed to be contextualized with the circumstances of their lives- and plans for managing their behaviour are supposed to take this into account.
We recognise that brutalised children do terrible things. Risk management, and solid evidence about how we treat them-are what should guide us. Not only in addressing the damage done to them, but to manage possible risk their behaviour may pose.
This isn’t the same as saying that it is ok for those kids to behave how they like, because they are abused. It is about making sure intervention is guided by facts, evidence, and reason.
There are only two things that make the case of Jon Venables different to any of the situations I worked with. The first is the severity of the incident, the second is the level of media influence on how they were dealt with.
What happened in the James Bulger case, was horrific. The brutality of the tragedy shocked everyone.
This was a tragedy with many many victims. Shocking it may have been. Evidence that if we have a society where children can grow up like this, it can have horrific consequences. The scale of the tragedy should have led us to develop our understanding of how this could have happened, to learn lessons from it. To work to prevent it happening in future.
The problem is that the severity of this tragedy led us to forget that. It was too difficult for us as a society, to look at this case in the context of what we know to be true. Too hard to look at what we know about the way children develop, and say we have to understand it. Too hard to admit that yes, in some circumstances, that this can happen-and it did.
Instead, it was preferable to believe that these children were ‘evil’. Somehow the idea that these children were posessed by a force that was out of normal reasoning, is preferable to telling the truth.
Not only do the public want this problem taken from their view, they want to believe that abusing these children further, wreaking vengeance-won’t actually entrench the behaviours these young people display.
When we talk about concepts of ‘evil’, we avoid having to acknowledge unpalatable truths. James Bulger was not the only victim in this tragedy. THere were many.
Because we as a society can not bring ourselves to apply reason to this horrific case, we tried two children, who records show had absolutely no understanding of the process they were accountable to. Who were both very clearly seriously traumatised by this incident, by the things they had done, by the things(especially in Thompsons case) that had been done to them. We tried two traumatised children, as adults, in an adult courtroom, to satisfy a need to pretend that this tragedy was beyond our understanding. Yet we knew, even then what would trigger this behaviour, how it could come about. These children had mobs baying for their blood.
As a social worker, if your job is to try and manage the risk brought about by the cycle of abuse, you don’t have the luxury of looking away. You can’t pretend that ‘evil’ is part of the equation.
I have worked with young men who have frightened me. Where I have been fairly sure that they will probably go on to hurt themselves, or others. I have worked in these situations, not with a desire for some kind of vengeance- but with the aim of reducing that risk. Knowing that it is also likely be me arguing they should lose their liberty.
One of the things that makes working in Childrens Services so difficult, is the refusal of our society to actually sit and consider what child abuse does. What it costs our society, and how best to manage it. We bask in concepts of good and evil, because it is easier than taking the time to figure out not only why tragedies like the murder of James Bulger occur, but what can be done to prevent them.
As tabloid hacks encourage us to compete to see who can come up with the most gruesome sentiments about Jon Venables, they undermine the very people who don’t have the luxury of wallowing in blood lust. The people left to pick up the pieces.
And when you are the person who is sat there, having to make the difficult decisions, it is quite hard knowing that you doing what is right, and least harmful- could result in your name being underneath the headline, with the hacks chasing for your blood. Especially when you are doing that job with inadequate resources, because society would like these ‘feral children’ to not exist.
I don’t know the details of Jon Venables current arrest. I know the media frenzy surrounding it has made acting appropriately impossible.
You can have justice and rehabilitation, and work to understand and manage risk, or you can have revenge. You can’t have both.