Holding the line

Recently a 14-year-old boy contested that Richmond-upon-Thames Council was infringing his human rights by imposing a 9pm curfew on him. The order imposed on local teenagers has effectively meant that young people found out on the London borough’s streets after this time are escorted home by the police.

According to the UK civil rights group Liberty this approach is far from peculiar, with up to three-quarters of local authorities throughout England and Wales imposing similarly draconian measures against ‘anti-social’ behaviour. When Brent Council, with the Metropolitan Police, distributed photographs of three teenagers to local residents and posted their details on the internet, the young people also cited the European Convention on Human Rights in their defence.

As journalist Zoe Williams pointed out in the Guardian recently, why are we so keen to outlaw behaviour that might irritate or even feel threatening, but is not actually criminal? These young people are guilty of little more than being ‘drunk and noisy’, she says. It is just a thinly disguised prejudice against working-class youth having a good time.

Fear of crime is enough to bring out populist gestures by otherwise anonymous local councillors. Such initiatives are typically defended on the grounds that certain sections of the community feel intimidated by the very presence of groups of young people in their neighbourhoods. The Howard League for Penal Reform, unconvinced by such claims, has called for the abolition of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and accused authorities of political opportunism. But perhaps there is more to the popularity of these ASBOs than an underlying class-ism or a nervous nimbyism.

For instance, an initiative has been launched in London’s West End of all places. According to the Metropolitan Police it is not only a preventative policing measure to avoid trouble, but also motivated by a concern for the safety of youngsters out late. Similarly, while worried that the bright lights of the big city shouldn’t become a no-go area to its liveliest visitors, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) felt unable to wholeheartedly oppose the measure, citing the potential risks that the metropolis holds for our vulnerable offspring.

So as well as being accused of causing trouble enough to merit criminal proceedings, our youth are themselves, we are told, ever more troubled. And it’s not only the NSPCC that pulls the vulnerability card out of the pack at every opportunity.

Young people’s mental health is in freefall, while ‘lying, stealing and being disobedient’ have soared over the past quarter century. Or so say researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and the University of Manchester in a recently published study, ‘Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health’. Putting aside the fact that these are arguably typical behaviours for a lot of young people – whether or not they happen to be growing up in an increasingly anxious and intolerant society such as ours – no evidence was found of an upward trend in aggressive behaviour among the nation’s youth. This fact was less widely reported. In fact, the study’s authors concluded that their findings point to a ‘widespread malaise’.

But are adolescents really any more troubled or troubling than before? Arguably, both the crackdowns and the claims of the study are symptomatic of a society that lacks a moral compass, particularly when it comes to bringing up children in its own image. And the instinct to exploit the fears and anxieties that typify our individuated society – allegedly under siege by these young hooligans – comes more and more to the fore.

This not only promises to curtail the ability of young people to develop resilience, necessary to become robust individuals able to weather the storms of adulthood. It also renders adults impotent to reprimand those unruly youth who do, at times, overstep the line.


What happens when the conversation ends?

Too often the care system fails to involve young people in decisions that affect their lives, or to engage them in any meaningful way. Where consultation or participation initiatives are pursued they are often short-lived or seen as an end in themselves. Quality Protects, the modernising fund which aimed to transform children’s social services, came to an end last month and other local consultation and participation initiatives are under threat.

The Children Act 1989 states, before making a decision, local authorities must “as far as is reasonably practicable ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child”. And citing article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England claims that the right to be involved in decision making, “is not dependent upon age or understanding”. This is typical of the increasingly uncompromising character of the children’s’ rights agenda. Indeed, consultation and participation have come to play an increasingly important role as a governing ethic in children’s policy circles.

In the green paper which preceded the much anticipated children bill, the government claimed to have the nation’s 11 million children on side. Or, some might argue, a dubiously complicit sample of them. Apparently, economic well-being, staying healthy, staying safe, “enjoying and achieving” and “making a positive contribution” were at the top of their collective wishlist. A cynic might find this all a little convenient for a government bent on promoting healthy lifestyles, risk-aversion and a newly engaged citizenry.

But is it accusations of thinly disguised ventriloquism that so discredit efforts to ascertain the views of children and young people? Or is the much cited consultation fatigue to blame? Certainly, deepening levels of mistrust seem to blight each and every policy endeavour whatever its merits. Either way, suspicion that consultation is being used as a stalling tactic, or an unconvincing distraction from policy vacuity or political indecision, is on the rise. Yet perhaps something more fundamental lies at the heart of this enthusiasm for connecting with such “hard to reach” constituents.

Does seeking legitimacy supposedly through the mouths of babes, itself, betray a shaky hold on the public confidence? Has “user centeredness” become an all-purpose and consequentially tired and ineffectual mantra? There is, I think, a danger in conflating misgivings about social work practice with the very different concerns of political or institutional legitimacy.

The social work profession is in a seemingly continual state of disarray. The relentless glare of adverse publicity in the wake of preventable tragedies, culminating in the momentous inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, has wounded it immeasurably. Consequently, the children’s rights agenda appeals to those seeking to relegitimise the social care enterprise or find a renewed sense of mission. But is hiding behind the kids really a solution to this existential crisis?


Opportunity knocked

It was a huge injection of resources for children in care: £20m to improve their access to information technology and so widen their opportunities and enhance their lives.

In 2001, the minister of state for social care, announcing the funding, spoke of ICT’s potential to inform “all aspects of care, health and well-being along with supporting their education.” The guidance issued urged local authorities to be “as innovative as possible”.

Similarly, both the Welsh assembly’s Children First Initiative, and the Scottish executive’s grant of £10m to raise educational attainment, stressed the importance of ICT. So, two years on, have local authorities delivered?

In Scotland, approximately half of the money went on technology projects. According to the executive’s report, most simply gave it to carers to purchase PCs, with a minority investing in “tracking” software to monitor attendance, attainment and exclusions.

Many London boroughs have adopted a similar approach and it would be no surprise to discover comparably unimaginative schemes predominating elsewhere. But are council’s really to blame for this? Certainly, you would be forgiven for thinking social services departments around the country have swallowed a New Labour-speak dictionary.

The education of the care population is about “enhanced self esteem”, according to Devon county council, accessing “other worlds” and learning new skills.

Not education then. When you consider that only just over a third are achieving at least one GNVQ or GCSE, and less than 1 in 10 attain five good GCSE’s, you can only wonder at the thinking of policy wonks and educationalists working with young people in the care system. In 2002, well over half left without any qualifications at all, not to mention the numbers that are excluded from school or who will go on to offend or sleep rough.

Back to Devon. Education is also about “building friendships and developing positive relationships”. I wonder whether they are considering rewriting this bit. Barely into the New Year and those young people daring to venture into cyberspace are met with a health warning, part of the £3m Home Office campaign aimed at countering predatory paedophiles.

Indeed as one child abduction case follows hot on the heals of another, further implicating the new villain of the piece – the chatroom – children’s services are hurriedly introducing new codes and regulations, if not to protect young people from “grooming” then at least to cover themselves if anything untoward should occur.

Unsurprisingly, children’s charity The Who Cares? Trust boasts that 60 local authorities have already signed up to their Department of Health-sponsored interactive CareZone – to be “accessed through the highest levels of security: including biometrics and smartcard technology” and featuring “developmentally appropriate” content. Such is the promise of a wired-up care system as envisioned by its architects.

These technologies are not going to make looked after children’s lives any better, especially if this amounts to little more than writing a cheque for a trip to the local branch of PC World. Neither will it reduce the sense of isolation that living in care often entails.

Approaching new technologies as a panacea for improving the outlook for looked after children on the one hand, and an inherent danger on the other, is a distraction from the real work that local authorities need to do if they are to address the profound disadvantages these young people face. Equally, the potential of IT to enrich their lives, and the quality of the care experience, is both wasted and distorted by its fetishisation.