Out of the shadows

Evidence is emerging of a link between being a teenage crime
victim and becoming a perpetrator. Mark Hunter reports.

Anyone who has been the victim of a crime will know how mentally
bruising the experience can be. Typical reactions range from anger
and shock through frustration, humiliation and fear. Such emotional
trauma is difficult enough to cope with as an adult. For a child,
however, falling victim to crime can be totally bewildering and a
source of deep distress.

Whereas most adults are able to draw on previous life events to
put the incident into perspective, children do not have this depth
of experience and can find even petty crimes difficult to shrug
off. They may find it hard to understand what has happened and be
unable to express their anxieties. There is a dearth of support for
child victims of crime. Many fear the reaction of their parents,
whose attempts to protect their children from further crime can
unwittingly increase the feeling of victimisation. A child who is
grounded for losing a mobile phone, for instance, may feel that he
or she is being punished for someone else’s crime.

Worryingly, there is also growing evidence that children who
become victims of crime are at increased risk of later becoming
criminals themselves.

The amount of crime committed against children is astonishing.
According to a study carried out for Victim Support earlier this
year one in four young people in England and Wales aged between 12
and 16 had been a victim of crime during the previous year. More
than 40 per cent had been subject to repeated offences, with some
reporting up to five different incidents over the past 12 months.
The most common offences reported were violence, assault and theft.
When the children in the survey were asked how they felt about the
crime, most said they felt angry. Four out of 10 said that they
felt upset, a third were shocked and one in five reported feeling

Victim Support’s response to the study has been to develop
a comprehensive pack of guidelines designed to help its volunteers
support young victims of crime. Prepared in consultation with the
Association of Directors of Social Services the guidelines include
a service model specifying the minimum quality standards of service
and practical guidance explaining how members should manage
difficult situations and dilemmas in working with children and
young people.

A child protection policy has also been prepared with the
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to
explain how victim support services should liaise with police,
social services, and the NSPCC if they suspect that a child or
young person is in danger, or has experienced abuse. There is also
a young people’s support pack to help children describe what
has happened to them, and to enable volunteers to assess the
service required.

“Although we’ve always provided services to younger
victims of crime, in the past we’ve tended to work through
their parents,” says Victim Support’s head of research and
development Peter Dunn. “More recently we’ve begun to realise
that is a bit unsatisfactory because young people increasingly
expect to be able to access

services independently.” A key element of the guidelines is
therefore to offer support that children can access without the

knowledge of their parents.

“A lot of young people are afraid of their parent’s
reaction if they have become a victim of crime,” says Dunn.
“Parents often take sanctions against their children in an attempt
to protect them – grounding them or whatever. But to the young
person that feels like they are being punished for being the
victim, and that is very unfair.”

According to Julia Fossi, a co-ordinator at the Camden Young
Victims of Crime Project in London, the ways in which children
react to crime are as diverse as crimes committed against them.

“It really depends on the child,” she says. “Sometimes even
children within the same family might react differently, so you
have to take the time to let them speak for themselves.” Nor does
the child have to be the specific target of a crime to be
traumatised by it, stresses Fossi. For instance, a baby whose
family home has been broken into can pick up on the parents’
emotional state and start to exhibit eating or sleeping problems.
Likewise, toddlers may regress to earlier stages in their
development, including bed-wetting and increased tantrums.

The Camden project has been running since February. Its
volunteers offer confidential emotional support and practical help
to victims of crime aged 17 and younger. The children either
approach the project themselves or their details are passed on to
the team by the police and youth offending teams. Volunteers will
then offer to visit them at home or invite them into the project
offices to discuss how they are coping.

The aim is to allow the young person to tell their story of the
crime and to discuss their feelings about it. They are encouraged
to talk about their fears and explore ways to resolve them. Crime
prevention strategies are discussed and the project is able to
refer the children on to other agencies if they require further
specialist help.

“We also work with the parents to help family communication,”
says Fossi. “Children under 14 are always contacted through their
parents, but older teenagers are contacted directly and can come to
us without their parents knowing if they want.” Although Fossi
emphasises that each child’s reaction to crime is different,
there are some generalisations that can be made according to the
child’s age.

The three-to-seven year olds may be in the “magical thinking”
stage of their development when they believe that they are the
centre of the universe and can therefore make things happen. This
may lead them to believe that they were responsible for the crime –
“I wished for my brother’s bike to be gone and it has been

Fossi says: “It is important to make sure the child understands
that they are not to blame for what has happened.”

The seven to 10 year olds tend to be “concrete thinkers”, who
find it difficult to comprehend subtleties and vagueness, while
adolescents often have the most complex reactions to crime. Already
going through an intense period of loss and change they may become
more moody, withdrawn or aggressive. Some express their distress
through the use of alcohol or drugs, or forming inappropriate
relationships. Some turn to crime themselves.

This phenomenon of victim turned perpetrator was highlighted by
the latest results to emerge from the ongoing Edinburgh Study of
Youth Transitions and Crime, being carried out at the University of

The study, which has been following 4,300 young people who
started secondary schools in 1998, has found that being a victim of
crime at the age of 12 is one of the most powerful indicators that
a child will offend at 15. Interestingly, the reverse association
also appears to be true. Those children who commit crimes at the
age of 12 have a strong possibility of becoming victims by 15.

According to the study’s co-director Dr Lesley McAra the
results can be partly explained by the fact victims and
perpetrators of youth crime often share similar lifestyles and
personality traits. They may be impulsive, prone to taking risks,
stay out late, drink alcohol or take drugs. The finding has
important implications for initiatives that aims to deal with young
offenders, says McAra.

“The philosophy should be to see the offender as a vulnerable
child who needs support. At this age it’s often very
difficult to distinguish between the victim and the

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