Children it is difficult to love

Some of our children cause lasting and serious harm to others, committing offences of violence or demonstrating that they have the potential to do so. Thankfully, there are relatively few children in Scotland who pose a serious risk of harm to other people but they do exist and we ignore them at our peril.

Over the past four years at CYCJ we have been running a service for children, from across Scotland, who pose the most serious risk of harm to others: IVY (Interventions for Vulnerable Youth). During this time, we have supported just under 180 children who pose the most serious risk of harm to others. We are conscious that this number is an underestimate of the need for support. This is due to limited resources to meet the need (IVY receives £225k a year to deliver this service).

Our work at IVY has focused on supporting better understanding of the risks each individual child poses, developing plans for how the risk can be mitigated and managed by those in the child’s life, and working with the child and/or those in their lives on a range of specific issues. These issues include: establishing safety, helping them process chronic and repeated trauma, or developing better ways of communicating their emotions.

As well as posing a risk to others, the children we support at IVY are almost always victims of harm, trauma and loss (for further information on this see Adverse Childhood Experiences in children at high risk of harm to others. A gendered perspective). The majority of those referred to IVY have experienced domestic violence and life within the care system, with high levels of abuse, neglect, familial imprisonment and parental substance misuse. Many of the children we have worked with have a speech, language or communication issue, or an intellectual disability, which often means that expressing themselves, understanding others and feeling empathy can be a significant challenge. It is not uncommon for intellectual disabilities or communication needs to have gone undiagnosed or responded to for many years prior to referral to IVY, meaning that opportunities to intervene, or intervene appropriately and potentially to prevent acts of violence, may have been missed.

Like all children, children referred to IVY have talents, interests and strengths. It is possible to build on the positives in their lives, to provide the support they need and help them address some of the difficulties they face. However, these children can be really isolated and are sometimes difficult to love and support. They don’t always have family in their lives and other children may not like them, so they may not have friends. They can be further excluded from other people for issues of protection, meaning they can be increasingly isolated, angry and hurt.

Whilst with help and support many of them can and do turn their lives around, if care and support is not in place, then some of these children will go on to be detained in a Young Offenders Institution or in secure care.

We do not always hear these children. They are not always able to express themselves, they can be hard to understand and they don’t always have people around them able to advocate for them. Their exclusion from others means they can be easy to ignore until they force us to pay attention through their anger and aggression. We don’t always ask them what would help them. Sometimes people have already given up hope in these children’s ability to change, or are unconcerned with supporting them because of the harm they’ve caused others. These children can be difficult to sympathise with, to like, or to love, so sometimes we don’t want to stand next to them or to be associated with them. We are fearful of them and of getting the blame if we are unable to help them change. As a result, we sometimes don’t want to support them, or speak up about their needs.

But these children need us.

If we do not step in and help them to address their behavior, we are setting them up to fail and we are setting society up to deal with the harm they go on to cause. At CYCJ we are increasingly concerned to see significant cuts to services, supports and professionals working with our most violent children. At times of dramatic budget cuts, our violent children are an easy target. It is unlikely that we will see a strong or political response to reductions in funding to address their issues and needs. This is why we need leaders who see the strategic importance of this work and understand what is happening here.

There is little that is more important than supporting change in children who harm other people. They need to take some responsibility for their role in the harm they do, but this responsibility is shared with us. They are children; we are the adults. We need to stand alongside them and help them to change, making a clear commitment that these are our children and we are not giving up on them. We will do our bit if they do theirs. There should always be hope.

About our blogger

Claire Lightowler is the Director of CYCJ

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Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
Lord Hope Building, Level 6
141 St. James Road Glasgow G4 0LT

(0141) 444 8622

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