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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 September 2006, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
How early can you spot a problem child?
The Magazine answers...

Identity parade? How early to spot trouble?
Can problem children be spotted before they're even born?

Before a child takes its first breath, doctors can respond to health problems.

But could the same be true of behavioural problems? Are tomorrow's anti-social children going to be identifiable before they've even been born? And if that's the case, what can be done to help?

Prime Minister Tony Blair talked today about social exclusion - a topic that last week saw him highlight the need for early intervention to support children identified as most likely to face a troubled future.

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

The argument is that by the time these children begin school, they can already be on a collision course, which will lead to exclusion from school, anti-social behaviour and criminality.

Research accompanying Mr Blair's speech highlights a pattern of negative development that can escalate from "hyperactivity at two, cruelty to animals at six, shoplifting at 10, burglary at 15, robbery at 20 and eventually spouse assault, child abuse and neglect".

But how early is early enough when it comes to changing the path of a young person's life?

Before birth, according to a project in New Zealand, in which midwives have helped to detect problem families.

Midwife visits

This project has been highlighted by the UK government - and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) says that such pre-birth screening could also happen in this country.

Child drinking from a beaker
Children's behaviour patterns are set early

There has already been a pilot project in Leeds in which midwives identified unborn children likely to be heading into difficulties - with the RCM claiming an 80% success rate.

The risk factors included domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health problems and poor education.

But a spokesperson pointed to the difficult balancing act in intervening to help families under pressure, without threatening the sense of trust between midwife and family. "We don't want to jeopardise the relationship," she said.

The chief executive of the NCH children's charity, Clare Tickell, says early intervention is vital - both in terms of intervening early in the life of a child and early in the life-cycle of a problem.

"I'm a massive supporter of early intervention - which is about anticipating problems rather than waiting until families are in crisis," says the NCH chief.

Bleak families

"The earlier you intervene with families - and with children - the more likely you are to have success, and the cheaper it will be. It costs a huge amount of money to see to a child to 18," she says.

Victorian criminal children
Victorian reformers wanted to rescue "criminal children"

And she says the challenge is to break cycles of dysfunctional behaviour that could stretch back generations - with "terrible, bleak family histories".

But she warns about the sensitivity of offering help without labelling people as inevitable failures and stigmatising children before they're born.

Former Labour MP Tony Benn has warned that labelling children in this way could be a kind of "eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked about".

But Neera Sharma, policy officer at Barnardo's, says that there has to be a distinction between giving access to support and a "surveillance and monitoring" approach.

And she supports the principle that early assistance is more effective than trying to pick up the pieces later in life.

"Today's drop-outs are tomorrow's parents," she said.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I praise Tony Blair's recent suggestions of tackling problem children before they become a problem. I am a parent and it is obvious that if a child grows up in an environment in which they are not cared for, loved or taught the value of respect for others they will inevitably grow up to be uncaring and often violent individuals. If we allow children to grow up being abused and neglected then it is too late to help.
James, Harrogate

It sounds very much like extending the state's control over individuals at a very early stage to make the control more effective and less costly: a real nightmare.
Michel Daillet, France

The comment about 'sensitivity of offering help without labelling people as inevitable failures' irritates me to the extreme. They may be a small minority, but the fact is there ARE 'problem' families out there who are a menace to society. They sponge off benefits, have no respect for themselves or other people, and make life unbearable for those unfortunate enough to be stuck living near them. So enough of the political correctness - how about some 'sensitivity' towards the poor souls that have to put up with above?
Sarahjayne, Oxford

Becoming a parent is very hard and little pro-active support is given to most new parents, no matter what their social background. Perhaps the government should consider better support for everyone, with parenting classes that take account of the fact that parents now have children to be looked after while they attend the classes! If this was the norm, "problem families" might not feel so stigmatised and therefore more amenable to receiving help.
Karen Packham, New Malden

At last - something sensible from Blair. Psychological studies suggest that the first three years of a child's life are the most formative in developing their sense of self. Hence nurture and parental care from birth to three lay the foundations for the adult to come. Get it right at this young age and we'll boost the mental health of our nation and dramatically reduce antisocial behaviour. This is not about nannying or eugenics - its an appropriate social service that will help those who's demographic suggests that they might otherwise struggle. As a parent I support this initiative more strongly than any other Labour initiative since they came to power. Hey - while we're at it, how about parenting classes in schools?
CA, London

I am a Housing Environmental Health Officer, now working as a self employed Private Sector Housing consultant to Councils, I visit (generally) deprived neighbourhoods on housing matters, including disrepair, illegal eviction, drainage problems, insect and rodent infestation, overcrowding multiple occupation, safety etc etc etc I would like to point out that my colleagues and I are in the ideal position to act on problems identified - the BIG problem, is that the comittees and structures set up to handle such problems as highlighted by the PM and others are hidebound by bureaucracy. Members of panels and cheif officers of governmentt dept's are eager to be politically correct and self serving FIRST and to accomplish something SECOND. i.e. When I have reported a social problem to social services I have had great difficulty finding anyone who would "run with" the problem, most "social workers" were desperate to interpret my report in such a way as to "pigeon hole" the problem into someone else's department; answers range from "Oh no; you need the Adult Team for that....." or " You'll need the Mental Health Team...the childrens team.... the out of hours team....." any answer at all but "Thanks we'll deal with it!"

I sincerely wish Tony Blair the best of luck, but he needs to keep out of the headlines and just tell people to DO something, instead of designing schemes where there is an opportunity to say " yes we'd like to help.....but this case should be dealt with by...ANYBODY but me!" Please feel free to pass this comment on to the PM and I am available to discuss it from a REAL grass roots level, anytime he wants to call
Philip Thorneywork, Walsall

We've all seen badly behaved children who have parents who are struggling and often just don't have a clue that they are doing anything wrong. Help is needed but it should be practical and useful. I have had healthworkers give much unhelpful advice as "well make him do it then" -how? "You'll find a way". If parents believe they are going to have practical help they will be more open to receiving it. Perhaps a parenting course can be offered to would-be parents before birth, along side the ante-natal classes, and each parent sent away with a copy of "Supernanny"?
Chris, Warwickshire

It's really very simple: If a couple expecting a newborn suffer from behavioural problems that may lead to behavioural problems in the child, they should be given the support they need to overcome their behavioural problems thus preventing the child from growing up like mum and dad. No baby ASBOs, no taking children from their parents, just happy families.
Tony, Southampton

The statement "Today's drop-outs are tomorrow's parents" couldn't really be more accurate in my opinion. In my area most of the current teenage tearaways who are consistently in trouble with the Police, are actually the offspring of the trouble-causers from my school era. Surely it is common sense that bad-behaviour can be 'inherited' when the parents don't even know how to behave themselves!
Andy Smith, Wakefield

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