There has been a lot of debate about raising the age of criminal responsibility in this country. Any informed view needs to take in the perspective of the child.
Picture the scene – a 10-year-old boy, Ben* is anxiously looking at the sign above the entrance to the drab grey building. He is about to be interviewed by the police. It was a serious offence in which he allegedly indecently assaulted another child five years younger than him.
Is Ben the perpetrator or a victim of an early childhood where neglect, domestic violence and poor parenting gave him little in the way of structure or boundaries?
Ben is a child but he faces adult interrogation in an environment that is not just alien to him but decidedly intrusive and potentially abusive. He is shaking with fear. He is at a loss to understand what is happening. Offence, charge, interview and solicitor are words that don’t appear on a X Box or Playstation . What was it all about?.
The two police officers putting the questions to the child weren’t aggressive in interview. It wasn’t an interrogation by them but a system.
So many questions and no real answers. Ben’s solicitor advised him to make “no comment”, or to remain silent. The child was reluctant to do either but he had to. To make a statement would incriminate himself.
This is the dilemma of the system. How do you help Ben deal with his issues, acknowledging with him that what occurred was wrong, and progress the work without him being labelled a criminal?
Because Ben has gone through a legal process that needs to be concluded there is a long delay to allowing this real work to be done within a therapeutic environment. There is also the important message we give to Ben that it is can be beneficial for him to talk openly about his behaviour and its consequences for others. But this is not the lesson he has learned from his recent experience in the police interview room.
Surely there has to be a way to deal with this issue without there being a charge and a 10-year-old child being criminalised?
*Not his real name
Bernie Walsh is a social work practitioner who has worked in child protection, safeguarding and fostering
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