‘I think in certain areas we ain’t provided with lots to do and that makes kids fend for their own type of fun and most of us just end up hanging out on the street. This causes knife crime and stuff like that’ – Girl, aged 14 (The Big Ask).
Recent months have been heavy with devastating news about the tragic and senseless deaths of children in this country. The tragedy of 15 year old Elianne Andam, fatally stabbed by another teenager after an incident on a bus in Croydon, united the country in shocked grief in September. And now this month, we have all seen the tragic news of the death of Alfie Lewis, also just 15 years old, in Leeds.
I imagine many of us were deeply concerned that we were seeing an increase in serious violence, similar to the tragic rise that we saw from 2017/18 before the establishment of violence reduction units and other measures in the most affected parts of the country. I suspect many policymakers have been confident that the approach was beginning to have an effect and that knife offences were dropping.
Today marks the release of the second annual report on children’s experience of violence in England and Wales by the Youth Endowment Fund, who were established to find long-term and proven solutions to the problem of violence. This report, along with climbing knife offences, seems to show that we are once again seeing a rise in violence affecting children.
I am very concerned to see an increase on last year on several concerning metrics, including the total number of children who were victims or witnesses of violence, those seeing violence on social media, or being absent from school because of fear of violence.
At 47%, almost half of children report having been a victim or witness of violence in the last year. Children who were missing education, had a social worker, or whose families were using food banks were even more likely to be victims. When I did The Big Ask, only 4% of 9-17 year olds were unhappy with their personal safety (although concern was higher among 16-17 year olds and children living in deprived areas or with high crime rates), but many of the themes in their responses ring true to today’s findings.
‘I occasionally get worried people might want to hurt me when I go home and it is a bit dark’ – Girl, aged 14 (The Big Ask).
One of my biggest concerns about this report is that only 16% of children who were perpetrators of violence say they received any support last year. These are exactly the children who we need to intervene with in order to break the cycle of violence, not forgetting that 48% of teenagers who had perpetrated violence were also victims. To take one example, this report suggests that 5% of teenagers describe themselves as members of a gang, which would translate to tens of thousands of children. But, in the last year, social work teams identified only 11,000 children who they were concerned were involved in gangs, suggesting that there are thousands of children who need help to extricate themselves from violence and criminal exploitation who aren’t known to support services.
The report also highlights how many children are experiencing violence, in all its forms. I worry that the narrative around what is often termed ‘knife crime’ is often simplistic, fraught with misunderstandings, and sometimes explicitly racist. Most of the violence that children experience is not knife crime, and there is serious violence other than assaults with bladed weapons. My office is currently conducting research on child victims of sexual harm, a form of violent crime that disproportionately affects girls, and I believe is too often overlooked when we discuss violent crime. I am working with the Ministry of Justice on a Victims Code for children, and calling for changes to the support that victims receive.
‘I have been a victim of catcalling and it is not nice. I am 13. A minor and I am being cat called by middle aged men. No. That is not right’ – Girl, aged 13 (The Big Ask).
From these forms of serious violence to violent content on social media, violence is having a real impact on children’s lives and positive activities. Shockingly, more than 20% of children say they have missed school for fear of violence and half of children say they don’t feel safe in youth clubs.
What’s the answer?
During my time as Children’s Commissioner, I’ve had to engage seriously with this issue of keeping children safe. I heard children’s concerns about safety in The Big Ask, have visited violence reduction units in Birmingham and Manchester, talked to children in custody suites and inside Young Offender Institutions about what led them there, and talked to professionals from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner down about how to keep children safe.
My belief is that the only way to prevent children from perpetrating violence is by diverting them away from criminal behaviour, and offering intensive support to change their behaviour.
There is a huge overlap between victims and perpetrators of violence, and the characteristic they are most likely to share is previous contact with police. This really underlines why it is so important to get that relationship right. As my research on strip searching has shown, too often child protection is not prioritised in these interactions, losing the opportunity to safeguard and divert vulnerable children from crime while damaging trust in the police.
I am committing my office to look further at the issue of serious violence affecting children over the coming months. Here are the places that we need to start:
- Attendance: Being in school is a protective and preventative factor for children and it’s deeply concerning children are missing school out of fear. Attendance is still everyone’s business, and this only underlines the importance of meaningful and formal partnership between education and multi-agency safeguarding partners.
- Online safety: Children should be protected from harmful content on social media, whether that is the link between pornography and harmful sexual behaviour or examples of real-world violence being spread and compounded online.
- Positive activities and safe communities: Children need more youth services and other safe and positive things to do in their local area. We need to take seriously where children don’t feel safe and redesign our services and public space so that they do – high-quality facilities and spaces, safer walks to school, and community policing.
- Safeguarding and support: All services that support children need to work together to protect them – that means data sharing, aligning thresholds for support, and a unique child identifier so that children don’t fall through the cracks. But is also means non-stigmatising service that meet children where they are, with schools as the locus of support in a child’s life.
- Youth justice: The youth justice system needs to be more rehabilitative and provide a new vision for secure care. That means improving safety and reducing reoffending in secure settings, while providing alternatives for children on remand. We need to take child criminal exploitation more seriously with a statutory definition and better support. Every interaction with the police should be an opportunity to intervene and divert a child from violence.
My final thought is a quote from a young person, who challenges us to think differently and find a solution:
‘In certain areas, there is heavy youth crime, where I live there’s youth violence happening every single day… [We] need to invest heavily to stop knife crime and gun crime from the root of the problem, stop and search simply won’t work well for starters we need more youth clubs where kids can go instead of going to the streets’ – Boy, aged 15 (The Big Ask).