22 Jan 2010

Torture brothers: will lessons be learned?

Home Affairs Correspondent

The background to this attack has revealed a world of brutality in which police and social services failed to intervene. Home affairs correspondent Andy Davies looks at what went so wrong.

The accompanying report contains details of the case which you may find upsetting

“Serious failings”, “absolutely preventable” and “lessons to be learned”. These words, in relation to children, crime and social care, have become all too familiar in recent years.

From James Bulger, to Victoria Climbie and Baby P, these chronic failures have invariably led to a tragedy.

In the case of the two brothers in Edlington, detained on Friday for a minimum five years in custody, nobody died.

But the pain and trauma suffered by the two victims, who were “sadistically” tortured on wasteland, also extends to their families and in many respects to the two perpetrators themselves.

Sally Ireland, from the Standing Committee For Youth Justice told Channel 4 News: “This case has shocked me but I’m not surprised by it. Of course, there have been a number of missed opportunities here.

“The boys came from difficult backgrounds of abuse and neglect. They were exposed to drink, drugs and ultra- violent films from an early age. Obviously these matters were not dealt with at an earlier enough stage by the authorities.

“But it is speculation to say the boys would not have gone on to commit these crimes if social services had intervened earlier.

“In the end, it comes down to money. Facilities for dealing with these types of children are under-funded. For example, there are very few secure hospitals for mentally disturbed juveniles in the UK.

“Proper resources are needed. As it is, it is quite possible we will see another case like this soon.”

The brothers detained earlier were placed into foster care just three weeks before the attack, because their mother said that she could not “cope” with her seven children.

Director of Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh, said it is now vital social services learn to recognise these cases – where whole families need support long before children fall into crime.

She said: “The failing here cannot reside in the children. It is the adults who were supposed to step in and stop this that must carry the responsibility.

“I am afraid I am not surprised by what these boys did. In very deprived homes and communities, where children are chronically abused, sadly children then go on to abuse others. This cycle is well known.

“This case was absolutely preventable, had social services and children’s mental health stepped in to look after these very disturbed children much earlier on.”

Youth justice expert Pam Hibbert, a former assistant director of policy at Barnados, says although shocking, cases like this one are still very rare.

She said: “Of course there are failings of the welfare system. Children’s services can always be criticised for not intervening before it gets to this point.

“But you have to remember they usually work under a huge amount of pressure. Unfortunately, local authorities have to operate with finite resources.

“Children that come into the criminal justice system almost always share the same characteristics. They come from chaotic lifestyles, suffer abuse and neglect and have adults who do not relate to them.

“You have to remember that extreme violent crimes involving children are extremely rare. They have not increased in recent years. It remains constant, and has done for a while.”

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet.com, fears politicians are not making enough concrete progress with child protection, despite repeated promises to “learn lessons”.

She said: “There is always going to be one horrific headline-grabbing case. Family issues are coming up again and again in politics.

“But I do have a slight suspicion, and there is a suspicion on Mumsnet, that there is a lot of talk and not much in the way of tangible policies that cost money. Is that because there is no money in the pot?

“Actually what Mumsnetters want to see is more support for new mums, more provision of child care and more affordable childcare. All the things that help all sorts of families and also help on the social front too.”

Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz, said: “The best way to end these cycles of violence is to ensure that the relevant services respond quickly and effectively when children are seen to be at risk.

“People working with children must regard child abuse as a critical risk factor in relation to violent offending behaviour.

“There is a large body of research to substantiate this with evidence showing that approximately 60 per cent of the young people in the criminal justice system have experienced abuse.”

It is a familiar conclusion, but one which must surely now be put into action by government and social services.

If the “toxic home life” of these two young criminals is the root of the problem, then Camila Batmanghelidjh’s words best sum up the Catch-22 scenario.

She told Channel 4 News: “Sadly these boys will now get the best care in the criminal justice system.

This is an indictment of the failure in Britain: that vulnerable children have to commit a crime in order to get the care they deserved prior to committing that crime.

“Did they really need to commit a crime to get to that point of help?”