Ways to be sure the kids are alright

By Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company (THE TIMES, 02/06/08):

Youth violence has become a national puzzle. Everyone is searching for the solution, but before it can be found we have to understand why teenagers are spilling blood on Britain’s streets.

There are two types of children involved – “imitators” and “initiators”. The initiator child learns violence in their abusive or neglectful family home. Deprived of loving relationships, the part of the brain responsible for control, empathy and anticipating the consequences of their actions does not develop healthily. Deep in the emotional centres of their brain, traumatic memories of abuse are stored – lethally unprocessed – that later generate bad behaviour and agitated energy. This type of child is “thermostatically impaired” – they cannot “regulate” their emotions and energy. Without calm they cannot learn or self-sooth.

Younger, battered children bank their revenge. When they are older and physically more robust they get the chance to make the shift from “underdog” to “top dog”. They know it is better to be powerful; you are less likely to be attacked, hence their preoccupation with “respect”. Designer clothes, “bling”, weapons, even having a tear tattooed on the side of your face to show you have killed, sends the message: “I am so violently competent, don’t attack – my revenge will be lethal.”

Initiator children report feeling “soothed” when they are hunting down their next victim. They experience calm after battering someone. Research demonstrates that this soothing has parallels in the release of neurochemical calmers in their brains. This type of child is violent because they seek relief from it. They plan, execute it and then they feel rewarded.

Many initiator children I have dealt with talk about being “triggered” – or “switching”. The anxious child is propelled into a state of neurochemical fury, perhaps by some incident reawakening some past memory of abuse. During this fury they often don’t hear or see the people who are trying to calm them down. If the victim pleads, the perpetrator’s response is one of revulsion: they don’t like begging because it reminds them of when they were children, pleading but with no one to protect them. Many of the remorseless killings are as a result of this “switching” mechanism.

These children are not afraid of prison; no threat from the authorities can be worse than what has already happened to them. They believe life is not worthwhile – no one cherished them. In being suicidally brave they can kill without regret.

The initiator child sets the temperature at street level, influencing the behaviour of imitator children. They are children from ordinary homes who have no need to be violent, but are forced into aggression to survive their attackers. Imitator children are bullied, or watch their peers being deeply humiliated. They are forced into imitating violence to acquire a higher power rating. Violated children, fed up of with being at the bottom of the pecking order, “tool up” to protect themselves. Violence is therefore a public health issue – like a virus it is spreading among children.

The knifings tell us that children don’t feel safe.

At Kids Company we have learnt from traumatised children the most effective way of helping them. The primary task is to make children safe, find them somewhere to live (84 per cent are homeless), remove them from the drug trade, and meet their basic needs for food and clothing: 60 per cent are unregistered with GPs and some have never been to a dentist; some suffer from malnutrition and infections; they have received no immunisation because they haven’t been to school for years; 83 per cent are addicted to substances that they use to self-medicate as many sleep badly and suffer night terrors.

The task is to work with young people to achieve “self-regulation” – to balance out their hyper-agitation with the ability to calm down. To relieve excessive anxiety we use sports: martial arts, boxing, and gym specialists are on the premises. When the kids want to fight they step in and give them a “safe fight” to release pent-up energy. For those in need of risk we provide challenging activities such as rock climbing or go-karting. Eventually we encourage young people to engage in intensive sports, during which we coach them away from addictions.

We use everything from massage and reflexology to meditation to create self-calming experiences that can be called on in times of aggression or anxiety. Once they are confident in managing their energy we begin therapeutic work using the arts to explore traumatic memories. Kids Company workers act as “compassionate companions”, helping the child to share the pain and grieve, sometimes in words and sometimes in pictures. Then we look to the future, to the child’s aspirations. Education, employment and volunteering help the child to reconnect to society as a valued and valuing citizen.

It takes time to build an internal control mechanism, but it is always more effective than a surveillance camera, ASBOs or prison. The University of London evaluated Kids Company’s holistic programme. Data from one street-level centre showed that 87 per cent of the young people returned to education and employment – compared with a national reoffending rate of 80 per cent. Over three years the University of London’s research showed an 89 per cent reduction in reoffending.

Social work departments are too depleted to deal with the scale of the challenge; social workers are often too scared to do the home visits, too terrorised to report their worries. About 553,000 children a year are referred to child protection services, but there is only capacity to put 30,700 on the child protection register and allocate a social worker to help to protect them. This failure is now disguised under a new term called “safeguarding” – a key part of the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda. We couldn’t protect the ones who needed it, now we’re saying “every child is going to be protected”. There’s one very serious catch: the Government has still not come up with a way of holding to account local authorities who airbrush out their failures – who checks how many invisible children are left outside the system?

Children see the discrepancy between our pretentions and the reality. The abandoned child waits to deliver his revenge for the danger we expose him to. Threats from children bear a message: zero tolerance for violence against children will result in no violence from children.