Somewhere in the world, an 11-year old child lies on a mattress on the floor in a police cell. He is wearing a paper suit having soiled his own clothes. His Asberger’s means he is frightened of the toilet (it’s the wrong colour). He’s hungry and thirsty, his OCD means he can’t eat foods that have touched each other and he’s been in the cell for 11 hours.
Abandoned by his drug addict mother, he has to wait for a volunteer to come and stand in for her. None is available. When his lawyer arrives, the child bursts into tears and clings to her. The lawyer is shocked that the child is barely 4’6 and looks like a malnourished milky bar kid.
In which country and with what kind of lousy human rights track record, does this scenario come from? It’s Britain. It’s not a fiction – it’s a sight that confronted me one Saturday morning earlier this year. I don’t blame the police, too much. They do what they can with the system they’re given and until there’s a separate and secure place of safety for child and mentally ill offenders to be held, this will continue to happen. Some children offend, but they’re still children, and at 10 years old they’re held to be legally responsible for their criminal actions, whatever their problems and disadvantages are.
A few years ago, my firm was one of three practices representing a group of youths who were arrested on a daily basis for a period of months. The crimes they committed ranged from nuisance (nicking beer, trashing gardens, swearing at old ladies) through to the most serious and dangerous including steaming through train carriages robbing passengers at knifepoint and stabbing fellow drug dealers. All of these youths, bar one who died in a stolen car, are now in prison.
All are subject to sentences, reflecting their dangerousness to society, and the need for the public to be protected from them. Over many, many hours in the police station, often at extremely unsocial hours, I got to know these youths well. At least, I got to know them as well as I could given their unwillingness and inability to communicate with anyone outside of their peer group. I am not a psychologist and could never begin to fully understand what made these children tick, but I could see they were deeply unhappy. I will not repeat here the disadvantages they suffered from, as it would be disrespectful to their families but, trust me, they suffered. I have two children whom I adore, and whilst not wealthy they are rich in love and attention. Even with the advantages my children have they can still be difficult and ungrateful and at times it takes all my skills to help them negotiate life. If I think too hard about how it must be for my young clients without that care, it would make me weep.
Talking with a friend (a non-lawyer) recently, I was asked what I thought the solution was. My reply was that if we were to get education in schools absolutely right now, we would begin to reap the benefits in about three generations’ time. The youths I represent are the children by and large of adults who don’t work, have addiction problems, poor parenting skills, low educational skills etc, etc, etc… . These children have such low levels of expectation for themselves that they rarely look beyond the next couple of hours, let alone to their future. Education is so focused on passing exams that the really important life skills are completely by-passed. Skills that would give children confidence, emotional well-being, coping mechanisms, an interest in life to replace the need for numbing drugs such as alcohol and cannabis.
If you’re a parent reading this, imagine for one moment that you took every possession away from your child. Then take every advantage away, every out of school activity, every social event, every shopping trip. Then completely ignore them, don’t speak to them except to shout and abuse. Make them live in a cramped unpleasant flat with no garden amongst a thousand others. Even take away their parents against their will and place them in care. Now do you trust them to behave impeccably? Always do the right thing? Go to school and pass exams and get a job? No? But society does, and it expects them to be responsible, criminally responsible, for their actions when things go wrong. I think we need to raise the age of criminal responsibility until we’ve got our social and educational responsibilities sorted out. Oh, and we need to stop locking children in cells.
Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system - the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I'd guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.