According to statistics just released by the Youth Justice Board, we are in the middle of a teenage girl crime spree: in the space of four years, offences by girls aged between 11 and 17 have risen 50% to 59,000 per year.
While many in the field attribute the rise to a greater willingness among agencies to report – and police to record – minor offences, they also recognise the figures highlight a deeper problem with the behaviour of young women.
Those who work with teenagers say there is a hardcore of girls in inner cities who have become more violent, and this is reflected in the figures: the recorded number of violent attacks and robberies are both up by more than 150% in just three years.
Iyabo Oba, a youth worker from west London, has spent the past year interviewing girls for the Centre for Policy Studies. She has found that some girls are getting involved in serious fights. And a small number of violent girls mean all young people are having to get tougher.
“It needs to be placed in context. In relation to the guys it’s still quite a small proportion but some of the girls say they need to be as hard as the boys. There used to be bullies when I was a kid on the bus, but I wouldn’t have to pay attention to them now they are unavoidable.”
Camila Batmanghelidjh, the director of Kids Company, agrees that violence among girls is a problem that has transferred from boys. And a recent increase in violence in general, she says, is driven by drug dealers and by a wider availability of guns.
“Sexual assault has really escalated at street level, and now drug dealers are using girls to courier and to work for them. So actually the girls are being pulled into the criminal world by the drug dealers.
“As there are more attacks on the girls, then the level of rage in the girls escalates.”
Batmanghelidjh says at the root of the problem is a view among disenfranchised boys and girls “that a human life is not worthwhile”. And the causes of this, she argues, are no mystery: a lot of parents are unable to provide adequate care underfunded services can’t provide enough support for those children without parental figures and society as a whole is uninterested and afraid of children. All of these have created an underclass of “lone children” which has created a cycle of deepening violence for boys on the street, a problem which has inexorably drawn in girls.
She adds: “What the public doesn’t understand is why these children are so suicidally brave. Why do they stand in daylight and shoot or stab someone or kick someone for 45 minutes on a bus? The fact is, these kids have got to the point that they don’t care if they live or die. They’re just exhausted by the battle for survival.”
Oba believes there has also been a generational shift towards “moral breakdown”, with an accompanying lack of boundaries within young people’s home life, which has spilled over into violence on the streets. Although she is unable to explain when or how such a breakdown has developed, the underlying point coincides with Batmanghelidjh’s view: a large responsibility for rising offences is, at root, due to weak parenting and state support.
So what is being done to address these problems? Research released last month by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London showed that spending on youth justice through the YJB and youth offending teams has risen by 45% in the last six years to £648.5m. Of that money, two-thirds goes onto funding places for those in custody or on remand – and the number of children locked up has gone up 8% in the last three years, against a target to reduce the number by 10%. By contrast, prevention schemes total just 3% of expenditure annually, at a meagre £23.7m a year.
“Girls are marginalised”
Jeanette Williams, a policy and development adviser to Hertfordshire YOT, says the figures highlight the problem that too many girls are being brought into the youth justice system rather than being diverted by other programmes, while those who are brought in are not properly catered for.
“Once they are in the system they move up it faster than boys because they are more likely to rebel than boys,” says Williams. “The youth justice system is not set up for girls. They are marginalised. A lot of the YOTs adapt programmes that exist for boys, and that can include things like car crime that girls usually don’t do. Things that work for girls are things to do with addressing drugs and drinking. But there’s just no off-the-shelf programme for girls.”
Provision of programmes has been piecemeal, but some steps are now being taken to remedy this. For the past year, the YJB has run a quarterly meeting for practitioners who work with young women who offend to share good practice and knowledge.
As well as this forum, research is also being conducted for the Board by London South Bank University’s Crime Reduction Unit. Elaine Arnull from the unit says the type of offences that girls in the youth justice system are involved in can dictate the sort of response that is required by agencies.
She says: “Girls who committed offences like handling stolen goods are more like adult women: they’re more likely to have experienced abuse or victimisation. We didn’t find that was true of girls who had committed violent offences in general they looked more like boys. We’re suggesting the system needs reconfiguring, because girls might not look like adults in terms of interventions you would need to plan.”
Some girl-only programmes do exist through YOTs, but Arnull says that they are not being matched-up to the sort of girls who would benefit from them. “YOT girl groups are more likely to look at relationships, sexual health and self-confidence, much more than programmes with boys will do. We’re saying we’re not convinced that the evidence exists that you need to do that. There are issues for girls, but they are the same issues as for boys.”
It is clear from the fact that Oba, Arnull and Williams will all be publishing research into young female offenders in the next few months that the field is now beginning to engage with the problem. But despite what is being found by both those who work in the field and by academics, the system remains geared towards tackling the problem through youth justice, rather than the underlying causes.
Says Batmanghelidjh: “We have more children registered as young offenders in this country than we have on the child protection register, and that’s because we wait until the child becomes a threat to society.
“We’re incubating a generation of children who are terrified and isolated. If we are able to articulate that truth then I think people will better understand why children are going on to violate other people.”
This article is published in the 19 June edition of Community Care magazine, under the headline “Girls gone bad”.
➔ Find out more about the work of Kids Company at http://kidsco.org.uk
➔ To read more about youth services go to http://www.communitycare.co.uk/104026