The Trouble With Young People - Why we all Need to Grow up

19/08/2011 22:33 BST | Updated 19/10/2011 10:12 BST

Like everyone in this country, I was horrified by last week's civil disturbances. As the chief executive of the UK's largest children's charity, I am clear that there are no excuses for the criminality that has taken place. All of those who have committed serious and violent offences - including young people - must receive sentences that reflect the gravity of their crimes.

But whilst peace may have descended, my outrage continues at some of the reactions towards children and young people in response to the events. There is a very real danger that young people are being made the scapegoat for wider social issues.

Of course it is easy blame young people - they already have a bad name, often depicted in the media as faceless hoodies up to no good, lurking on street corners in gangs, listening to gangsta rap. There is a perception that children - and teenagers in particular - are responsible for a significant amount of antisocial behaviour and crime, even whilst figures show volume falling over time. In 2008 Barnardo's found that 54% of the public thought that British children were beginning to behave like animals. Imagine what the results would be like if we reran that poll now?

Indeed, it would be easy to forget that the vast majority of children and young people are not troublesome. Instead, they attend school; take part in activities and a significant number are volunteers. And the truth is that most children living in the areas where these riots took place were not involved - less than one in five of those arrested for offences relating to the disturbances are under 18.

This is not to deny that it is deeply concerning that any young person was involved in rioting and looting. We know that there are some children who are at greater risk of getting involved in criminal and antisocial behaviour. Sadly, it is those same children who are at risk of other poor outcomes - exclusion from school, substance misuse, teenage pregnancy and lack of training or employment opportunities.

The evidence shows that once children are in the criminal justice system, it is more likely that they will remain so. Is it really in the public interest for a 17 year old girl to be remanded in custody awaiting trial for stealing a bottle of fizzy pop from a looted shop? By beginning to hand out disproportionately punitive sentences for minor offences such as petty theft, we run the risk of pushing young people towards life of crime rather than deterring them from it. As such, I have written to the chair of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Leveson, to express my concern about the trend in up-tariffing that is being reported from the courts.

Addressing criminal acts by children through punishment alone is at best superficial, and at worse counterproductive. Therefore I welcome the commitment of the Prime Minister to turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country by 2015. Clearly whole family approaches such as Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) which challenge and support parents and their children to face up to their behaviour and accept responsibility for their actions will have a major role to play in achieving this.

This approach is not a soft option. Evaluations for these services speak for themselves with reductions in anti social behaviour; truancy, exclusions and bad behaviour at school amongst children. Yet in some areas funding for these services have been cut.

In our haste to appear tough, we also run the risk of making decisions in the heat of the moment about the fate of the young people and families involved that potentially will affect them for the rest of their lives. Evicting families from housing or removing benefits is not the answer. This will only drive disadvantaged families into increasing poverty and result increasing mistrust and alienation from authority and society.

Barnardo's knows there are no 'quick fixes' - you need to stick with children, young people and families. Time and time again our services have shown that with ongoing support and 'tough love', it is possible to break the cycle and ensure that troubled children do not go further down the road of antisocial or criminal behaviour, thereby benefiting them, their communities and society as a whole.

It is still too early to really understand exactly why rioting, looting and arson broke out on our streets last week. But it is heartbreaking to realise that so many children and young people growing up today are feeling angry and powerless. And no wonder, now that so many now have little hope of finding a job on leaving school, and will struggle to stay on in education.

It is critical that children and young people play an active part in the communities and victims panel announced by the Deputy Prime Minister. Barnardo's services have supported young people to become involved in tenants associations on some estates, to contribute to local authorities children's plans and to have dialogue about local policing issues. Where young people are consulted they develop better social and political awareness, they learn and develop skills as innovators and develop a sense of ownership and belonging.

At Barnardo's we take pride in never giving up on a child, no matter what the circumstances. Now is the time for us all to come together, and to start believing in our children. It is our job as adults to live up to our responsibilities to teach young people right from wrong, to provide them with the opportunities to develop their potential, and importantly, to listen to them. Only by helping young people to feel that that they have a stake in society will we prevent our communities from turning in on themselves again.