Last week saw the press release for the launch of the Commission on Young Lives (Link here). Led by Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner, it aims to focus on the pathway of school exclusion, grooming, and county lines involvement for many vulnerable young people. I was thrilled to see the several mentions, in the Sky News article which was released for the launch, to childhood domestic violence as one of the many vulnerabilities children may face. I welcome the linking up of the different aspects of both private and public adversities, which has no doubt been helped by the mainstreaming of the ACE’s discourse (even though that has also brought many issues with the tick-list which doesn’t always recognise the gravity of each adverse experience).
However, one thing that bugged me in the press releases, and is an enduring feature when ‘gangs’ are discussed, is the artificial polarization of the so-called perpetrators and the victims;
“It comes as the former children’s commissioner launches a new initiative to stop what she calls a “conveyor belt” of vulnerable children falling into the hands of gangs and criminals.”
So here we have a classic dichotomy between the ‘vulnerable children’ and the ‘gangs and criminals’. However, the picture is so much more complex than that.
At which point does a vulnerable child cease being that and instead become a gang member and criminal?
Is it when the age of criminal responsibility kicks in at age 10?
Is it when a child in care may live in independence, (or a child could get married…) at age 16?
Is it when a ‘young offender’ enters the adult prison estate?
Is it when a young person leaves school?
The truth of the matter is that the men who end up as the scary ‘gangs/criminals’ in this imaginary are actually young people that we failed to help soon enough.
The concept of a conveyer belt which takes ‘innocent’ young people into the hands of the ‘gangs’ is a convenient image, inspiring a fairy-tale-like story of little red-riding-hood and the wolf awaiting her. But the reality is much more nuanced.
The risk of this language is that it risks alienating the very young people it is trying to reach.
This is where the language of ‘gang’ comes to its controversial sharp end. Young people don’t want to identify as being in one as this is where the sympathy ends. You move from the victim to the perpetrator role in the minds of the professionals around you. Support services become offending services. You move from being ‘at risk’ to being ‘The Risk’.
In order to help young people we need to sit with the discomfort that some young people are harmed themselves through life’s adversities, and then go on to harm others.
They can have been ‘vulnerable children’ and ‘gang members’.
They can be ‘vulnerable children’ and ‘criminals’.
This conveyer belt that takes them from one position to another is more the passing of time with no adult support. No recognition of their difficulties. No intervention to change.
The ‘conveyer belt’ is actually them becoming hardened by their surroundings. Creating an outer shell to protect themselves in the way they know how.
It is our job to support them to be safe enough to face their vulnerabilities and see a positive future. Not to stigmatise their older peers, who have survived in the only way they saw available.