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How We Fail Teenage Tearaways

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Many poor communities complain bitterly that teenagers wreak havoc on their estates and get away with it time and again, mocking the power of the law. Such victims may feel vindicated by the recent report on two 'tearaway' boys.

The report by Lord Carlile draws out the lessons to be learnt from a terrible crime committed three years ago in the Doncaster area. Two brothers aged 10 and 11, who were in foster care, tortured and nearly killed two other boys of their own age. The brothers were imprisoned indefinitely for this crime, so the community is now safe, but Lord Carlile asks how the crime could have been prevented.

The report is incredibly depressing to read. Given the furore over Baby P, how could countless opportunities to intervene be missed? Is it partly because these were difficult, angry teenage boys committing crimes, rather than a toddler with a face like an angel? The boys were involved in at least 40 violent incidents starting with the oldest brother hitting other children at school and throwing a brick at a moving bus aged seven. The brothers wreaked havoc and were for the most past beyond the arm of the law. But they could and should have been helped, and so prevented from creating more victims.

Their family life was dominated by domestic violence - their mother was regularly beaten up by their father and they often appeared at school with bruises. They were excluded by school after school, so they ended up wandering the streets looking for trouble. They suffered from what is known as conduct disorder - an inability to control emotions and behaviour. If children's mental health services had intervened effectively, they might have had some chance of living a normal life. In fact CAMHS only assessed the oldest brother after he had been convicted of assault and didn't follow up when appointments were missed. They needed intensive help anyway, like a therapeutic care placement, not a weekly appointment. The most surprising thing is quite how long (four years) it took for social services to take the boys into care, and how inadequate was that care. The two brothers, who were by then very wild and violent, and were not going to school, were placed near their violent father (who had split up with their mother) with well-meaning but insufficiently experienced foster parents. Despite being 'looked after', they were again wandering the streets unsupervised when they lured the two boys to near death.

There are so many lessons in this sorry tale. But the one that stands out is that crime committed by children can never be seen in isolation and the most powerful remedies are all outside the criminal justice system. These boys had severe mental health and learning difficulties. They had totally inadequate parenting. Nothing excuses the crime they committed, but they were failed as children by every single agency and everyone agrees their final crime was preventable. So why then treat them as quasi-adults in a criminal court and sentence them to indefinite imprisonment. Was that justice?