For the love of children

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Why are we so quick to demonise our young people? Reva Klein reads a passionate plea for understanding - and help

Shattered Lives: Children who live with courage and dignity

By Camila Batmanghelidjh

Jessica Kingsley pound;13.99

Young people don't get a good press. In fact sometimes it seems they are the repository of all our social ills and fears. They are hoodie'd, Asbo'd sociopaths running amok through civilised society, destroying anything in their paths before destroying themselves. They have neither individuality nor conscience, having been hewn from the the same oikish mould; they don't know the difference between right and wrong and need to be taught a good lesson.

The latest wave of demonisation of young people appears to date back to 1993, when two 10-year-olds murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool. But John Bunyan's description of youth in his Book for Boys and Girls, published in 1686, wouldn't look out of place on the opinion pages of today's popular newspapers: "Children become, while little, our delights. When they grow bigger, they begin to fright's. Their sinful Nature prompts them to rebel, And to delight in Paths that lead to Hell."

It's a pretty safe bet that every generation since the beginning of time has lamented its wayward youth. But it's unlikely that British society has ever been more fragmented and divided than it is today. Communities have given way, in many parts of our inner cities, to atomised units in which individuals lock themselves into their homes, scared to make contact with the young people outside. Social services have become so under-resourced and pressurised that even the most dysfunctional families are left to their own devices. And many schools are simply not equipped to cope with disruptive pupils. The problems are so awful, their scale so immense. And the "solutions" so punitive.

In Shattered Lives: Children who live with courage and dignity, Camila Batmanghelidjh rails against society's fear and loathing of young people.

She does this by tearing back the curtains to expose the harrowing stories of some of the "worst" of today's youth. She knows better than most who these young people are: as the founder of two charities, the Place 2 Be and Kids Company, she has devoted much of her life and formidable energies to working with the young cast-offs whom no one else wants to go near: teenage prostitutes, drug dealers, knife and gun-carrying toughs, crack and smackheads.And the rest. She embraces the kind of children that the rest of us avoid.

Batmanghelidjh attempts to explain the vulnerability and defensiveness of these young people by revealing what lies behind their impenetrable, frightening masks. Abused by mothers and fathers; preyed upon by stepfathers and neighbours; sexually exploited; humiliated; starved; ignored; manipulated: she spares no details in her in-your-face narrative.

She describes, too, how Kids Company tries to bring some stability to their lives. The stories are told in the form of open letters to half a dozen young people who have been through the hands of Kids Company. Central to each letter is the story of how the children had been let down by everyone else: their families, their schools, social services, mental health professionals.

These are gut-wrenching scenarios. In her letter to Mr Mason, a pseudonym chosen by a young West Indian boy for its very conventionality in what has been anything but a conventional life, a series of nightmarish life events are rolled out unremittingly. The boy's drug-addicted mother was sent to prison when he was four, after which he was taken in informally by a woman who, he suspects, was also an addict.

His life, Batmanghelidjh tells us in her letter, has been punctuated by brutalising events. At 14, with his mother, he exacted revenge on his sister's abusive boyfriend by going to the boyfriend's flat where, together, they stabbed his dog to death. Earlier, at the age of 12, he had stabbed his abusive stepfather, after which he was thrown out of the house.

The litany of violent and painful experiences, in which Mr Mason is both victim and perpetrator, echoes those of the other children documented in this book.

One by one, Batmanghelidjh calls them "brave", "beautiful", "courageous", "dignified". She recalls how, when she showed them the letters, they "shed silent tears", often writing to her or texting her later to say "I love you" for the pivotal role she played in accepting them for who they were and sticking with them through their darkest hours, whether that meant sitting by their beds in mental hospitals or helping them to detox in country hideaways.

Interspersed between the letters she includes a number of "pleas for wisdom", advice for those working with children in any context, on how to deal with difficult situations and how, among other things, to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed by the children's pain.

The book's introduction and conclusion rail against a world that has objectified and typecast problematic young people as irredeemably, hopelessly bad. The passion that has fuelled Batmanghelidjh's ferocious commitment for so many years is directed at us, bystanders to their miserable situations. "I hope every adult reading this book will recognise their contribution to the neglect," she fumes. What I hope, is that every adult reading this book doesn't feel bludgeoned and numbed by the torrent of misery with which she assails the reader.

While Batmanghelidjh has done the unloved and uncared for children she works with an enormous service in providing them with the care that they so crave and need, she may unwittingly have done them a disservice by framing their important and unforgettable stories in a way that gives the reader no space to think or feel for themselves. Despite these reservations, it is probable that after reading Shattered Lives, you'll look at troubled young people with more understanding and less moral approbation than perhaps you did before. What you do with this new insight is another matter.

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