Roads to nowhere

31st January 1997 at 00:00
From "London" by William Blake

I wander thro' each charter'd street Near where the charter'd Thames does flow And mark in ev'ry face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe

We call them "streetwise" or "independent-minded". They are the children who stay out late and are not looked for until the next morning, even if they are nine years old. They are known to the police, who sometimes take them home. They can be seen outside pubs, and they are not afraid to talk to strangers. They know all the warmest doorways, the places to find food, how to shoplift and deny it convincingly, who is who in the street. They are the children whose tearful, heavily made-up mothers appear on the television news, described as living on a council estate with the child's "stepfather" and as having several other children (by different fathers, we all assume).

They are children with "behaviour difficulties" whose parents never come to parents' evening. They are the children with lots of files, somewhere, in police stations and social services departments. They are children for whom the street is friendlier than home.

Gitta Sereny, author of a fiercely disturbing book on the child-killer, Mary Bell, and articles on the young killers of James Bulger, is adamant that "street children are always fleeing from their home". Whether it is a dysfunctional family where relationships don't work, or a terrifying nest of hostile older siblings (as for the two Bulger killers), or a fetid nest of sexual perversion (as it was for Mary Bell), it is usually a dramatically bad environment that forces a child out on to the streets in search not just of affection, says Ms Sereny, but also in search of someone to love.

Rikki Neave, dead at the age of six, was apparently sacrificed in a black magic ritual. His mother, acquitted of his murder but convicted of systematic cruelty, described him as "difficult". So difficult was he that, as she squirted washing-up liquid into his mouth to teach him not to swear, he repeatedly called out, "I love you, Mummy", according to sworn testimony. Rikki, who used to forage in dustbins in the snow, was "streetwise", said detectives. The last words of Daniel Handley, aged nine, who was abducted by paedophile killers, were, "Are you going to kill me now?" Daniel, who had been riding his new BMX bike, was described as "streetwise". It seems safe to say that being "streetwise" has shortcomings as an adaptive strategy. What it does do is disguise need.

Children are necessarily needy. Tough talk, defiant acts and swaggering "independence" at primary age are shields to protect immature beings from the pain of unacknowledged need. If such bravado succeeds in deflecting hostile attention but also alienates possible protectors such as teachers, then the shell hardens but the child inside remains as vulnerable. How streetwise can you be, when you are six, seven, eight years old?

For a teacher, establishing contact and cutting through the shell of the street-smart child can be daunting. Nowadays, the cry goes up, "We have no time". As Gitta Sereny remarks wryly, "People spend a lot of time with their televisions." Can our concern for children end with the "delivery" of the curriculum?

One useful tip, says Liz Cloyne of Hampshire's Outreach service, is to nominate one person in the school as a key contact for the child. That person, be it their class teacher, class assistant, welfare assistant, head or deputy, takes a short, fixed time each day or each week to talk to the child, and offer them a little open-ended conversational chance to drop the bravado and reveal their needs. Perhaps some of these needs can then be met: free school meals, secondhand uniform, a place to do homework, extra tuition in a confusing subject.

If not to teachers, to whom can children turn? Huge numbers of children have rung ChildLine since it was set up, but a sympathetic voice on the phone can seem very far away. Since 1969 and the abolition of children's officers, there has been no specific authority to champion vulnerable children. There are no hostels where runaway young children can go to be safe and warm, to be fed and held until their stories can be heard. Instead, there are the police, who take them back to their families, and the streets, with other vulnerable children offering the erratic camaraderie of need (and adults who prey on that need).

If a school can establish a structure of care, where a personal, pastoral link is contained within a scheduled time slot, that will not solve all the problems a streetwise child is covering up, but it may give him or her a safe breathing space in which to take stock, and the knowledge of that breathing space may enable the child to let go of some of that damaging swagger.

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