The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 6th, 2009

Forcing vile parents to have their babies adopted will stop this evil

What two very young boys did in April to two other little boys in a wood near Doncaster is unspeakable. It is difficult to talk or write about. Yet what those children did demands a response; in particular it demands an answer to the question of what, if anything, can be done to stop something so unspeakable ever happening again. There is a case to be made, unfeeling though it sounds, for saying there is nothing much that can be done. We already have an extensive network of social workers, health workers, mental health workers, probation officers, police officers, teachers, foster parents, government early years schemes, social care experiments, outreach projects, charitable endeavours and all the rest, designed especially to protect the vulnerable. All those agencies were supposedly in place specifically to protect children such as the Doncaster boys and their victims. The system failed terribly in this case and not for the first time. Doncaster social services knew the boys well, yet failed them and many other children at risk, seven of whom have died since 2004. The police ignored warnings from neighbours. But the truth is that all systems fail at times. Human error is always with us and there are always weak links in any chain. Even so, the system here is a comprehensive attempt to protect the vulnerable; there is little reason to believe that a lot more of it would work any better. Besides, any more state intervention might well begin to seem too much; at moments like this, it is easy to forget that the system has very considerable powers over our private lives already. And cases like the attack in the Edlington woods are extremely rare. Related Links * How to catch them before they go feral Such libertarian arguments usually tend to appeal to me. However, in this case they seem quite inadequate. For although such terrible behaviour is indeed rare, its underlying causes are not rare at all — causes which lead inevitably to countless lesser crimes and cruelties. The picture painted of the home life of the two Doncaster boys is seen in countless households across the country: a drunken, drugged-up mother who gives her children cannabis to keep them quiet, who doesn’t talk to them or feed them or clothe them, who allows the men in her life to beat them and terrify them, who makes her indifference to them quite plain and who begs social services to take the children off her. Not every child who suffers such neglect and abuse turns into a pre-teen torturer or murderer, but every single one will suffer irreparable damage, which in turn will be passed on to others. As Auden famously said: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in their turn.” And the reason is one that is only beginning to be understood: the neglect and abuse of babies and children damage them not just in some loose psychological way, as everyone has always assumed. It also damages them physically; it permanently affects the development of their brains, leaving them with cognitive and emotional impairments that will cause grave problems to themselves and others. There is a large body of academic literature on this subject: the fact that people’s minds, feelings, understanding of others and general ability can be permanently damaged is no longer controversial. Oddly enough, it seems not to be widely known, although the phrase “Romanian orphans” makes the point for many people. But this view is now widely accepted in social work circles here, following studies done for the past 15 or so years in America and elsewhere. “Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences,” one scientist wrote in 2000. “Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds.” Sigmund Freud was right: the first three years (when major brain development occurs) are crucial. People tend to talk of children like the Doncaster boys as evil, or of bringing them to justice, or of giving them extended therapy. I believe this is irrelevant: because of increasing scientific understanding of the forces of both nature and nurture in determining our choices, our ideas of evil, blame, personal responsibility, treatment and punishment are increasingly out of date and inadequate. The Doncaster boys can hardly be blamed; they scarcely knew what they were doing or appreciate it now; they are not as others are. And while they should be locked up and kindly treated — perhaps for ever: the reoffending rate for outfits such as the ones they will go to, at £210,000 a year, is 78% — they may be beyond help. For the future, however, there is something that should be done, especially for the babies at obvious risk of permanent damage from disastrous mothers, although in a country with great traditions of freedom such as ours it is hard to feel very confident about it. Perhaps it might really be best if such babies were compulsorily taken away at birth and adopted. Had Baby Peter survived living with his mother, he might well have grown up to be something like the Doncaster boys, but if he’d been adopted at birth he might have grown up undamaged. Enforced adoption is a horrible idea. But the alternatives being considered seem to me unlikely to be of any more use than social services — patchy at best. Early intervention is the idea favoured by almost everybody at the moment and Iain Duncan Smith is hoping to get cross-party support for it; the government is already running Family Nurse partnership pilot schemes, copied from America, to intervene in problem families early enough to stop the damage. There are some obvious problems with this approach. The schemes depend on intensive support from dedicated health visitors. Yet there is a desperate shortage of such people and numbers are falling; 20% of them are over retirement age. And while their care is supposed to be intensive, in practice it involves either weekly or fortnightly visits. This is better than nothing, of course, but hardly likely to do more in extreme cases than ring alarm bells. And fostering for problem children has been notoriously unsuccessful. We could do something, if we as a society would accept some extreme intrusions into our personal freedom. And if we can’t tolerate such measures, then I think we have to accept there is indeed not much we can do to stop something like this happening again, or to stop other lesser evils going on all the time. What price freedom?