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41 JUNE 2002
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Fear of youth

Mark Smith

Having farmed this column out to my MSc students for the last couple of months, I discover that I’ve let them go off on their summer break without enlisting their help over the next few months. The offer’s still there for anyone who reads this and feels the urge to put pen to paper. Just get in touch!

In some ways, finding something to write about this month is easy. Scotland has all of a sudden discovered youth crime. For a while, I thought it had passed us by. Over the past few months the issue has been exercising politicians and the media in England. Stealing mobile phones seems to be a particularly heinous offence and pronouncements from the Bench suggest that it should carry a jail sentence of up to five years.

Things seemed relatively quiet in Scotland. Until, not to be outdone by this flurry of indignation over young thugs South of the Border, Scottish politicians followed suite and suddenly started talking tough.

It’s not that simple though. A number of contradictory things are happening in relation to children and youth. On the one hand a Bill is passing through Parliament proposing a ban on smacking children under three. A range of non-governmental organisations attest that “children are unbeatable” and advise us through the press that children don’t like being hit. On the other side, parental rights campaigners rail against the nanny state. Ministers assure us that the police will use discretion and common sense in applying the new legislation. The police though aren’t so sure and fear that they’ll be swamped by the need to investigate thousands of minor complaints.

Alongside this legislation there are measures to keep greater numbers of 16 -18 year olds out of the criminal justice system and to maintain them within the welfare based Children's hearing system. However this proposal has hit troubled waters as a result of the perceived political need to be seen to be tough on crime.

And what an unedifying spectacle it is when politicians play the hard man (and it does tend to be men). There will be no soft option. There is talk of special “fast-track” courts to bring young thugs to justice. Not to be seen to be outdone the official opposition pitch in with a pledge to double the number of places in secure accommodation; this in a country that already locks up proportionately more young people than it’s European neighbours.

In England last month a mother was jailed for two months for failing to send her kids to school. That'll sort them out! Scottish politicians obviously thought so anyway and they’re now going to be tough on parents as well as their offspring. Thankfully wiser counsel now seems to have been brought to bear on this idea.

So, on the one hand we potentially disempower parents by threatening to criminalise them if they smack their child. On the other hand we threaten to send them to jail for failing to discipline their youth. On the one hand we want to extend the provisions of the hearing system to keep youth out of the criminal justice system and on the other we set up fast track courts to process more of them. Confused – you will be – until you realise that there’s an election on the horizon!

Some concerning trends underlie this debate if can be called such. It seems that as a nation, we don’t like children, according to research reported in one of the latest Sunday papers. They are the current folk devils of popular conception.

And I’m not sure that professional conception offers much more enlightenment. It can seem to reinforce images of children as either victims or villains with little of the messy crossover that is the person in between these labels. I was reading a report recently outlining a piece of practice with a young lad referred to a project as a result of offending. The poor lad was subjected to all sorts of risk assessments and worksheets aimed at sorting out his cognitive distortions. I finished reading with a full account of what had been done to him, but no sense of him as a human being. Of course the practice was dressed up in all manner of anti-oppressive and non-judgemental language so it was OK to objectify him in this way!

If this current eruption of media and political posturing were to settle, it might lead to a more sensible debate about the place of youth in our society. A good starting point might be to revisit the words of Dr. Guthrie, a pioneer of the peculiarly Scottish “industrial feeding schools” of the mid 19th century. Guthrie asserted that “the guilty party is not the child at the bar” and that we should “seek to prevent that there may be no cause to punish.” What price that sort of enlightenment in this age?

What role might adults have to play in the current state of affairs? What’s gone wrong that we fear connecting with youth at any authentic level but instead want to commodify them within a variety of legal or professional systems? And indeed what about those who preside over a political system that is so meaningless to young voters that they are far more likely to vote in television polls about pop idols than they are in a general election?

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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