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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Youth crime plans 'could misfire'
Police handcuffs
Up to 125,000 children have fathers in prison
Specially targeting the children of criminals to try and turn them away from crime could be counter productive, the Home Office has been warned.

Minister Hazel Blears outlined plans to try to break the cycle of crime by tracking children from an early age.

Such youngsters would get extra support at school and help from social services to stop unruly behaviour.

But children's charity Barnardo's said labelling children as potential offenders could do more harm than good.


About 65% of the estimated 125,000 children who have a father in prison "will end up in prison themselves", Ms Blears said.

"We can predict the risk factors that will lead a child into offending behaviour," she told the Independent newspaper.

"If you can tackle the 125,000 kids with dads in jail by providing extra support and help there's a chance.

"Children who have been in local authority care are again low achievers more likely than others to end up offending, so let's track them from early on."

Help must be given in a way which does not stigmatise families or publicly label children as potential criminals
Paul Cavadino

Barnado's chief policy officer Pam Hibbert said: "We know that having a parent who offends is a risk factor, it is perhaps a little disingenuous of Hazel Blears to say this is a huge risk.

"There is evidence that indicates that attempting to pre-determine outcomes can actually lead to stigmatisation and labelling of children, resulting in more rather than less children entering the criminal justice system.

"There is a grave risk that identifying a child as coming from a 'criminal' family, will alter the way that child is responded to and dealt with in a myriad of situations, from school to health care."

Families needed support, but that support should not "stigmatise" the child, she said.

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction charity Nacro, also said such targeting could reinforce rather than reduce the risks.

'Complex problem'

"Children with a parent in prison face powerful disadvantages, including an increased risk of becoming offenders," Mr Cavadino said.

"If targeting means providing genuine practical support for prisoners' children and help for their mothers, it could reduce the chances of becoming delinquent.

"But help must be given in a way which does not stigmatise families or publicly label children as potential criminals."

Director of the YMCA's programme development Ceri Davies said the government should stick to targeting areas of deprivation, rather than individuals.

"Criminality is a complex problem and requires complex solutions - not the sort of simplistic thing that is being proposed here," he said.

But Ms Blears said it was very important that parents were given help with parenting skills and that the children had "something to succeed at", such as arts, sports or drama.

"If you go to school every day and everybody says you are rubbish you are never going to succeed."

Help welcome

According to one study, many violent offenders started showing signs of bad behaviour at the age of six.

Other research suggested children who showed disruptive behaviour at the age of three were four times more likely to be convicted of criminal offences.

Ms Blears said she believed parents and families would welcome the extra help, rather than fear that it might stigmatise their children.

"My experience is when you talk to families who have received help - for example through parenting classes - they will often say I wish this had happened to me years ago," she said.

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