Searching for safety

Recently, society has been consumed by a
debate about the increased violence and crime facing children. But
for all the rhetoric, Ruth Winchester finds that policy makers are
slow to listen to children.

Life, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, is
“nasty, brutish and short”.1 For children, it can be
much worse. The death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in Peckham,
south London, in November 2000 made it abundantly clear how
dangerous life can be for children in urban areas.

Fatal stabbings and shootings involving
children are still rare, but bullying and verbal abuse are “facts
of life” for many children. In some inner city areas, young
children – particularly boys – are regularly mugged by other
children. Staff working in youth clubs in deprived areas say
children turning up with small stab wounds is “by no means

New research by the Howard League for Penal
Reform2 has looked at the experiences of crime among
1,180 children. The study revealed that most had been victims at
least once. Half had something stolen from them inside school and
nearly a third had been robbed outside school premises. Two-thirds
had been hit or kicked and half had been racially abused.

Last year, a report by the Office of the
Children’s Rights Commissioner for London, Sort it
,3 asked children what they felt about living in
the capital. Overwhelmingly, children said they wanted to feel safe
on the streets – they perceived life in London as violent and
unpredictable and some even felt worried about their parents being
on the street alone.

It is not about good kids being mugged by bad
kids, either. A child can be a victim one day and a perpetrator the
next. Claire Lanyon is a researcher at Kids Company in Peckham,
which offers education and therapeutic work to 300 children a week.
She says younger children are regularly being threatened and
robbed, then joining gangs and becoming the perpetrators as they
reach their early teens, continuing the cycle.

It is clear that some children are living with
the daily threat of robbery, assault and intimidation on a scale
that most adults would find unbearable. The impact of this
ever-present threat on children’s lives, sense of security and
emotional development has not been assessed. Statutory services for
children focus almost exclusively on sexual and physical abuse –
usually committed by adults – to the extent that little is known
about how children respond to being victims of crime perpetrated by
their peers.

There are some specialist organisations that
offer therapeutic support to child victims, but they are scarce and
most have long waiting lists.

National organisation Victim Support runs
schemes in every locality to help adult victims of crime. According
to services policy manager Peter Dunn, the organisation does run
some excellent schemes for child victims but they are patchy. The
organisation receives 90 per cent of its funding from the Home
Office, none of which is earmarked to help child victims of crime.
While the Home Office does fund some schemes that cater for
“vulnerable witnesses”, including children, these only cover
children who are entering the witness box. And this is a tiny
minority – children hardly ever end up as witnesses because they
hardly ever report crimes against them.

The reasons for this are complex, but
according to the co-ordinator of the Howard League youth crime
survey, Catryn Yousefi, most children do not view themselves as
victims of crime. They regard harassment and bullying as “just the
way life is”, she says, or accept it as part of youth culture. They
also develop their own strategies for dealing with the threat –
such as hiding their money, moving around in groups and avoiding
danger spots.

In fact, says Yousefi, children start to think
about themselves as victims only when someone talks to them about
their experiences. She says that children should be receiving
information and training about dealing with crime – if only to
raise their awareness that being bullied, assaulted or robbed at
school or on the way home is not an accepted part of growing

Children also fail to report crime because
they suspect that adults will not take it seriously or will treat
them as the offender. Teenagers hanging around in groups may seem
threatening to members of the public, but are they ganging up
aggressively – or protectively? And children are understandably
reluctant to involve teachers or the police when the consequences
of “telling tales” may be an unpleasant confrontation on the way
home from school.

The recent increase in awareness of crimes
against children may have been driven by the mobile phones that
parents expect to make them safer. Children may have lost their
dinner money once a week for years without making a fuss, but
parents notice when their child loses a £100 mobile – hence a
surge in reported crimes.

But despite the evidence that children are
routinely doing terrible things to other children, society still
treats child-on-child crime as inconsequential. While punching
someone at work would be viewed as a serious offence, punching
someone in the playground may be regarded as “rough and tumble”.
Tellingly, the British Crime Survey4 – regarded as the
best source of reliable data on reported and unreported crime in
the UK, and the basis of government policy on crime – does not
collect data from anyone younger than 16.

Sarah Simpson is director of training and
resources at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which provides safety
awareness training and courses for adults and children. She says
that children should receive training about crime and how to avoid
it from parents and other agencies (see panel).

She also argues that attitudes to boys and
girls need to be revisited. “Young men are significantly more
likely to be the victims of crime between the age of 16-24, yet we
don’t reflect that in our attitudes,” she says. “Parents will
usually have a discussion with their daughter about when and how
she will be getting home, but boys are expected to look after

In March, the government put a new emphasis on
tackling street crime in the 10 worst affected police force areas,
possibly spurred on by the rise in robberies. But more information
is needed. Children’s experience of crime ought to be recorded in a
co-ordinated way by the British Crime Survey. And children need
information and support if they are not to be left permanently
scarred by their experiences in childhood – both as victims and as

According to Peter Dunn at Victim Support, a
new service for child victims is in the early stages of development
and should be available by the beginning of next year. The plan is
that every local Victim Support scheme will offer a two-tier
service – with a basic level for older children aged 11-17 and a
second level using qualified counsellors and play therapists for
younger children or those with more acute needs.

All it needs now is some funding.

1 Thomas Hobbes
(1588-1679), Leviathan, 1660

2 Howard League for Penal
Reform, Citizenship and Crime Project, Survey Results.
From 020 7249 7373

3 Office of Children’s
Rights Commissioner for London, Sort it Out, 2001. It is
available from the

4 Home Office, British
Crime Survey 2001, from


The mnemonic the Suzy Lamplugh Trust uses is

Prepare – So if you are going
to the cinema, you make sure you know the time of the last bus
home, and that someone knows where you are.

Look confident – Lots of
research indicates that you are more likely to be targeted if you
look ill at ease, lost or unsure. Having a hood up or headphones on
is also bad news because it prevents you from hearing or seeing the
warning signs.

Avoid risk – If there is a
group of youths down an alleyway, you have a choice about whether
you go down there.

Never assume it won’t happen
to you.

For further information contact the trust on
020 8876 0305.

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