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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Anything but childs play

Chelsea O'Mahoney was the only member of her gang who spent her spare time colouring her nails pink and filling her diary with love hearts. But the 14-year-old was no different from her male colleagues when it came to prowling the streets of London, identifying hapless targets, then running at them and kicking their heads like footballs.

"You sought enjoyment from humiliation and pleasure from the infliction of pain," said the judge, Brian Barker, as he sentenced the four teenagers to between eight and 12 years' jail last month. The case, involving eight beatings and one death, not only shocked the nation but raised fears of "girl gangs" and concerns about increasing levels of female youth violence.

The debate about young offenders is now being played out in Sydney after two 14-year-old girls were charged with murdering a taxi driver. The cousins, from Liverpool and Canley Heights, were also allegedly involved in an armed robbery a day after his death.

Ultimately, their guilt or innocence will be decided by the court, however yesterday the Premier said he was dismayed to learn two teenagers had been charged with the killing. "My immediate reaction was where are the parents? I was shocked," he said, adding he did not wish to "get into dangerous territory with prosecutors" by commenting further.

While young male aggression is a sad but common feature of violent criminal activity, violence by girls is less common and seemingly harder to explain.

"Killing people is always horrific, but with girls we are more shocked because we expect them to be more caring while boys are out there thumping each other," says Howard Bath, a clinical psychologist who specialises in treating troubled youths. "There is certainly a sense that we are now seeing more violence in young girls. But that is partly because with girls it sticks out more because we expect it to be the other way round."

While recent studies have shown increasing antisocial behaviour among young women, serious assaults or murders involving girls usually involve long histories of neglect or abuse. O'Mahoney's case was typical: her parents were heroin addicts and she had been wandering the streets of London since she was four.

"The majority of young girls don't commit crimes such as brutal murders," says Kenneth Nunn, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Newcastle. "People who are from normal, healthy, reasonable backgrounds just don't go and kill people. To get girls to be violent enough you have to treat them pretty badly."

He says that whereas boys with a history of abuse tend to be aggressive towards others, girls are more likely to harm themselves. "Young men are more often physically abused, which leads them to violent crimes. Young women are more often the target of sexual abuse, and this can lead to severe depression and self-harm."

Violence by boys remains far more common in NSW than violence by girls. A 17-year-old youth from Parramatta was arrested on Wednesday in relation to the bashing by a group of young men of a Sudanese refugee, who is on life support in Westmead Hospital. A 15-year-old boy was arrested in Auburn and later released over the same offence. Another youth, 17, was charged yesterday with the stabbing murder of a 33-year-old man in Woolloomooloo in November.

But murder charges against girls remain uncommon. Twelve girls under 18 have appeared before the courts on murder charges in the past 10 years. Almost four times as many boys came before the courts in the same period, according to figures released yesterday by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The bureau's director, Don Weatherburn, does not believe youth crime in general has increased over the long term. "No one knows whether kids are committing more crimes because, for most crimes, no one gets caught," he says. "But it is unlikely youth crime is increasing because crime is coming down and most crimes are committed by young people."

The director of youth justice conferencing at the Department of Juvenile Justice, Jenny Bargen, warns against raising public fears on the basis of isolated cases involving young girls. "I don't think our kids are becoming more violent. A murder is a one-off, it's a spike. Right back to the 1920s there have been so-called moral panics whenever a spike occurs. But a spike is not an indication that general crime is out of control. Each case is highly individual."

She says high-profile cases involving youths – such as the murder of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-olds in England in 1993 – often result in "public damnings" and can distract the community and the justice system from helping the victim's family and the offenders. "It's disturbing that young people are involved in killing someone. It always has been. But it does not mean that suddenly it is not safe to walk the streets … There are programs designed to help [juvenile offenders] to understand what they have done and help them to grow up."

Violence by teenage girls does appear to be a growing problem. The bureau's figures show the number of assaults by people of all ages more than doubled in the past decade. The proportion of those committed by girls rose by about 4 per cent in that time.

Nunn says violent girls are not usually psychotic but have a history of neglect or abuse and an unaddressed mental illness.

"We can't take away the history of abuse and neglect but we can look at the mental illness and the substance abuse. The really addressable thing is to tackle the mental illness so they can see someone regularly who reaches out to them and tries to deal with their problems.

"We need to try to stop abuse and neglect, but once we are faced with a person with that sort of history, what we need to do is thoroughly tackle the mental illness. They don't come in and say they have a problem. They need a program that reaches out to them."

Paul Macmillan, a police superintendent who oversees programs for high-risk youths at the Police & Community Youth Clubs, says it is possible to turn around problem children, but the job becomes more difficult as they get older.

"They can go from being antisocial to quite friendly, to the point where they feel relaxed and enjoy the interaction with the police and other adults," says Macmillan, the acting commander of the clubs. "But they will also disappoint you just when you think you're getting somewhere with them. You get mixed results. Some kids you can't help. There is certainly an element where, if you get them at the right time, you can do something. Our focus is on the early teenage years."

Bath says the majority of both male and female young criminals come from broken homes and attach themselves to youths in similar circumstances. "If role models are missing in a young person's life, they are much more likely to resort to violence.

"Adults become someone they use to meet their needs, rather than someone they love and trust. I do think there's a trend of violence among people who grow up in dislocated circumstances, where they are moving from one area to another. Many families can break up and the kids get parcelled around between distant relatives and foster parents and natural parents. After a while, the kids have an impaired ability to attach to others."

Bath says young female criminals will often forms partnerships in which a weaker girl imitates and follows the other girl's antisocial behaviour. "You sometimes get a couple of girls committing crimes. Sometimes you get a situation where there's some kind of attraction between the two and they encourage each other, or there may be a persuasive relationship where someone has more disturbed sociopathic tendencies and a more powerful personality, and another, less powerful person doing the bidding."

But Bargen says there are no certain ingredients for a violent youth. "It can be both nature and nurture. There are kids who come from really disadvantaged backgrounds and do really well but their siblings may go in the opposite directions. Who can explain that?"

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