Page last updated at 23:54 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 00:54 UK

Tackling crime with 'loving care'

By James Kelly
BBC News

Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila Batmanghelidjh says young offenders are also victims

A leading youth charity is embarking on new research into how abuse and neglect can damage the brains of children - and potentially lead them into crime.

Kids Company hopes the study will prompt the government to fundamentally rethink its approach to tackling the problem of escalating violence among young people.

With a growing staff of more than 300 employees, speaking more than 40 languages, the London-based charity currently supports some 12,000 vulnerable children.

It works in 33 inner-city schools and runs a children's centre and post-16 educational programme.

Violent behaviour

The charity's philosophy is to promote and support the emotional well-being of the young people it helps with "loving care" expressed through the latest therapeutic and psychological techniques.

But it believes its latest project should have significant implications for the way youth crime is tackled in the future.

In partnership with the Institute of Psychiatry, Kids Company intends to conduct research about what happens to the brains of children who have been exposed to repeated neglect and trauma.

Similar studies have indicated that the development of parts of the brain governing impulse control, memory and empathy can be stunted.

By giving them techniques to manage their own behaviour we can give them robust practical solutions, rather than punitive ones
Camila Batmanghelidjh
Kids Company founder

This can trigger the violent behaviour of young offenders.

It means some young people grow up unable to properly consider the consequences of their actions, or reflect on past or potential punishments for misdemeanours - undermining claims that longer jail terms act as a greater deterrent.

Research has also found that when memories of childhood trauma are triggered in adolescence, the result can be uncontrolled rage and violence in the teenager concerned.

Kids Company says all the evidence points to the need for greater emphasis on early intervention programmes for vulnerable children and families, alongside sophisticated therapeutic help for those already damaged by trauma.

The alternative is to accept that the problem of violence among some groups of deprived young people will continue to grow.

Sophisticated thinking

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, said the damage done through childhood trauma can be repaired.

She said: "By giving them techniques to manage their own behaviour we can give them robust practical solutions, rather than punitive ones. It takes sophisticated thinking.

"We're saying to these children, 'you have a chemical and neurological challenge and need some techniques to manage yourself better'," she said.

"It is not an argument for absolving kids from responsibility but equipping them to take responsibility with techniques to balance their emotions."

Tabloid headlines often brand the young perpetrators of extreme violence 'evil'. But Ms Batmanghelidjh said they are also victims.

She said: "The fantasy of politicians is that the public is not intelligent enough to hear this. I disagree. Once you explain it to them the public is deeply appreciative because it makes sense.

Life should mean life Ė you go to prison and you donít come out
Helen Long
Mother of murder victim

"Where do these kids learn that life is so worthless? They learn it as they grow up and see no-one comes to save them from abuse and neglect."

The view that perpetrators are often victims too is not often shared by those who have lost loved ones to violence.

Helen Longís 15-year-old son Michael Morgan was stabbed to death by 17-year-old Kieran Wright at a party in Lancing on the south coast of England.

Wright was jailed for life with a minimum tariff of 12 years at Lewes Crown Court last December.

Life is precious

But Mrs Long said: "Life should mean life - you go to prison and you donít come out."

The fact Wright had a troubled relationship with his family adds weight to the Kids Company argument that the seeds of future violence can be sown at home.

But Ms Batmanghelidjh doesn't have a problem with tougher sentences.

She said: "On one level I agree with her because the message has to get out that human life is precious and no-one has the right to take it away.

They feel they will not win an election unless they pander to the popular belief that these kids are evil
Dr Felicity de Zulueta
Head of Traumatic Stress Service at Maudsley Hospital, London

"But also the message should be that because human life is precious it should be protected against abuse."

Dr Felicity de Zulueta, who heads up the Traumatic Stress Service at London's Maudsley Hospital, is acting as a liaison between the Institute of Psychiatry and Kids Company.

She says the government's approach to tackling violence among young people is inconsistent because, while it has allocated Kids Company nearly £13m over the next three years, it talks in public of "cracking down" on problem youngsters and their parents.

Children's plan

She said: "Unfortunately it is cowardice on the part of the government. They feel they will not win an election unless they pander to the popular belief that these kids are evil. They feel they're going to win votes on it."

Not surprisingly, ministers do not agree with this assessment. Last year the government issued The Children's Plan, which it says is about putting children and families "at the centre" of everything it does.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Schools and Families said: "We have long recognised that early intervention is critical in breaking the cycle of abuse, neglect, poverty and violence.

"This is why over the past decade we've focused on developing integrated services for families from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who may need additional support."

Over the next three years the government plans to invest around £250m in local services for parents, including cash to pay for two expert parenting advisors in every local authority area.

An additional £30m will go to the Family Nurse Partnership programme, which supports parents with their first new-born babies.

But critics of the government's approach say a better indication of what ministers think the future holds is given by a different area of Whitehall investment.

In December 2007, the government announced plans to build three new super-prisons to increase the capacity of the UK's jails to 96,000 from the current 81,000 by 2014. The building programme will cost £2.7bn.

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