The recent conviction of Jon Venables for offences relating to images of child sexual abuse has returned the murder of James Bulger to the front pages. It raises questions about how the state dealt with two child offenders 17 years ago.
When two 10 year olds led toddler Jamie Bulger out of a shopping centre in Bootle, and later murdered him, there was outrage throughout Britain. The media headlines and John Major’s comments that people needed ‘to understand a little less and condemn a little more’ served to stoke up a sense of moral panic.
Yet, for socialists at the time, the shock was perhaps not that children had killed another child, but that such instances did not happen more often. Children who lived in poor housing, with parents affected by alcohol and drug use, and who witnessed violence within the home and on the streets, were being brutalised from an early age.
Thatcher’s cuts in the welfare state meant that by 1993 there was little help available for families that asked for it and there were families where generations had little hope of work.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried in an adult court, despite being children who were only just over the age of criminal responsibility.
Evidence given in court clearly showed these were damaged children who had lived in chaotic households. The judge also released Venables and Thompson’s identities, so condemning them to a lifetime of false identities and a fear of being found.
The interests of the government were served by representing two children as the perpetrators of a horrific act, without any examination of how they came to act as they did.
To have explored the traumatising childhoods of so many young people would have laid bare the lack of help and support available for families who are so disposable to the system.
The motivations involved in the sexual abuse of children are complex. There is no research that proves a link between accessing images of child sexual abuse and the committing of a contact crime. What is known, however, is that Venables grew up in a stressful environment and then spent a crucial period of his emotional and social development locked away in a secure unit.
In his recent reoffending the failure of the system to therapeutically address his needs and repair the damage done to him has to be raised.
The idea that the custodial system rehabilitates young people has been undermined in recent weeks. The contents of the government manual ‘Physical Control in Care’ have been released after a five year freedom of information battle.
The manual is guidance for staff in privately run secure training centres which can contain children as young as 12.
Permitted techniques of restraint and self defence include carrying out alternate elbow strikes to the young person’s ribs until a release is achieved, driving straight fingers into a child’s face and then driving the hand downwards into the child’s groin area, and using an inverted knuckle in the young person’s sternum to then drive it inwards and upwards.
In 2004 Gareth Mynatt, 15, died whilst being restrained by three staff at Rainsbrook secure training centre. He choked on his own vomit.
In the same year Adam Rickwood,14, hanged himself at Hassockfield secure training centre. He had been restrained, with what a judge ruled was unreasonable force, prior to his death.
Between March 2008-9 there were 1,776 uses of restraint in the four secure training centres.
It is clear that the state sanctions the use of violence against children that it has labelled criminal. Young people are demonised and the media continues to stoke up the negative view of teenagers, breeding unnecessary panic in communities.
The young people in custody will predominantly be those who have experienced stressful and abusive childhoods, who have been in the care system, who have few qualifications, few career prospects and little hope for the future.
The ConDems’ plans for massive public spending cuts will threaten a generation of young people with long term unemployment. There will be even less support for families that are struggling with debt, poor housing conditions, domestic violence and drug use, which will lead to higher numbers of children in the care system.
Academy schools threaten to further undermine the notion of comprehensive education and will disadvantage the poor and those children with special needs the most. It is these children that end up in custody where there is little ‘rehabilitation’ and often high levels of brutal, legitimised violence.
When it comes to capitalism - to paraphrase John Major - it is time to understand a little more, in order to condemn a little more.
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