When push comes to shove

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Anti-social behaviour orders are being hailed as the answer to teenage delinquency and nuisance neighbours. But are they any more than anill-considered quick fix for a complex problem? And what is the effect on the families involved? Fran Abrams visits an estate where an order against one 14-year-old boy has left a community divided. Photographs: Simon Roberts

One day in December last year, posters began appearing on lamp-posts around the Ladybrook estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. "NOT WANTED," they announced in big, bold letters. "Jamie Lee Harris, aged 14. An anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) was obtained by Mansfield District Council's anti-social behaviour team," it went on, "which prohibited Jamie Harris from acting in a manner that would cause nuisance, alarm, distress or harassment."

It was the first time such notices had been seen on this 1950s estate, once council-owned but where many houses are now owner-occupied. But similar tactics had already been used elsewhere in Britain to enforce these orders, first used in 1999. Obtained by councils from a magistrates' court, they are seen as a quick, simple means of alleviating the misery caused by disruptive teenagers and nightmare neighbours.

But if the residents of the Ladybrook estate hoped the Asbo on Jamie Harris would end their problems - and some did - they were wrong. If this backwater was troubled before, it now appears to be on the verge of civil war. Jamie and his entire family - mum Norma, dad Martin, six brothers and one sister - are facing eviction. And even this does not seem to have calmed the neighbourhood.

"It isn't going to end," says one resident who declines to be named. "Who's to say they won't come back to put my windows in? I don't go out of my house except when I go shopping and pay my bills. They're moaning about what's been done to them, but what about me? What about me being victimised? What about me not being able to send my kids to the shop for a loaf of bread? I feel ashamed. I feel as a parent I've let my kids down because I couldn't give them stability, the life they should have had."

So far, so clear. Nightmare child; problem family. If the situation was this simple, the stigmatisation and removal of the Harris family might just end the troubles that have beset Ladybrook. But it isn't. Almost as many people here are prepared to defend the family, publicly at least, as complain about them.

"The Harrises are fantastic kids," says Maria Gibson, a youth offender panel leader and community activist who was recently invited to Buckingham Palace in recognition of her work. "I'd feel safe with them anywhere. But they'll all be in court before the end of the year if they don't get off this estate.

"A couple of weeks ago, Scott Harris, who's 10, came to my door on his little bike. He said, 'Can you come round please? The neighbours are bashing Mummy and Daddy's house up and Mummy can't breathe. I think she's going to die.' We have to look at the emotional and psychological effects of all this. This is long-term stuff."

The violence has not been one-sided. In the Harris household, with the broken front fence still gaping and shards of glass piled on the flowerpots under a front window smashed in the recent vigilante attack, there is an air of defeat. Martin's collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia has been packed away and the living room is bare, enlivened only by the presence of two noisy parakeets in a cage. One by one the older boys arrive: Shane, 20, in a taxi with the weekly shopping; Tommy, 17, and David, 16, almost indistinguishable with their spiky, blondish hair clamped down under baseball caps. Ricky, 13, is slouching on the sofa. He isn't at school today because he's not well, Norma explains.

At around noon, Jamie arrives home from school, a baseball cap topping his black school jumper and trousers. He attends the Queen Elizabeth endowed school for one-and-a-half hours a day after being excluded for bad behaviour. After banging around in the kitchen for a while, he sits on the arm of his father's chair. But he says little. While the rest of the family ranged around him are amiable, if quiet, Jamie is angry and withdrawn.

Every muscle in his thin shoulders tenses, and he leaves his father to do the talking.

The trouble started, Martin explains, after an incident outside a phone box about 18 months ago. Jamie and one of his friends shut a neighbour's son in the box - just horseplay, according to Martin. Jamie later admitted pushing the boy and his friend admitted hitting him. A further incident involved the same boy and a bicycle. Soon, the local police and Mansfield council's newly formed Asbo unit, set up in the middle of last year, were trawling the local community for information on Jamie and his brothers with a view to starting anti-social behaviour proceedings.

By late last year the local authority was ready to proceed against Jamie.

He admitted riding a motorcycle in the local park, but denied he had threatened to put a petrol bomb through a neighbour's letter box. He also denied an allegation made by the chip shop owner that he had become abusive after his demand for free chips was refused. He admitted being on the playing field with a golf club, but denied using it in a threatening manner.

Because the case was a civil one, the burden of proof was lower than in a criminal court. The magistrates had merely to decide on a balance of probabilities that anti-social behaviour had taken place, rather than finding the case proven beyond reasonable doubt. The order was confirmed, barring Jamie from no fewer than six areas around Ladybrook, including the precinct, the chip shop and the nearby park. Then things really started to go wrong for the Harris family.

"David was arrested for ripping down the posters they put up," Martin explains. "Then I committed criminal damage at the police station. I went down there with David, then I went back later that night and put the police station windows through. I was upset and angry."

On the streets, the situation began to spiral out of control. There were further incidents in which several neighbours accused Jamie and some of his brothers of abusive or threatening behaviour. Some of those neighbours decided to take the law into their own hands and attacked the Harrises' home, a matter that is still before the courts.

As well as taking action against the alleged perpetrators of this crime, the police and local authority stepped up their action against the Harrises. Martin and Shane were served with injunctions ordering them not to behave in a threatening manner or to enter the street where their accusers live. David received a letter warning him that any further incidents could lead to Asbo proceedings against him. Aided by the local authority, the family's private landlord served notice to quit on them. The Harrises have failed to find alternative accommodation and were facing eviction as Friday magazine went to press, despite gaining a two-week reprieve.

The effect on the rest of the family has been appalling, Norma says. "Lee's only five and he's having nightmares about the men who came and attacked our house. I'm on medication and I have panic attacks if I go to pick the little ones up from school. My sons have to go and fetch them now. It seems there's no end to it. We just want a house where we can be with our kids.

Somewhere we can get a fresh start."

Meryl Cunliffe, head of Mansfield council's Asbo team, believes the family deserve the tough action taken. Like most of the protagonists in this drama, she tends to lump all the Harrises together; both sides agree a key feature of the case has been the physical similarity of the older boys, which has often led to one being mistaken for another.

"Every one of those boys looks alike," she says. "There were lots of incidents we couldn't bring up in court because we couldn't be 100 per cent sure who was involved. And we had to use hearsay evidence because people were frightened to speak against them. But we have to protect our community. The human rights of the majority have to come before the rights of the other children in that family."

The education system has a key role in preventing such cases, Ms Cunliffe suggests. No youngster subject to an Asbo in Mansfield has been in school full-time, she says. All have been excluded or fail to attend. "If they're in school, they're usually working with someone. The problem is when they're out of school and refusing to work with anyone," she says.

This rule certainly applies to Jamie Harris. Dave Childs, an education officer in the local youth offenders' team, says that when he became involved in the case last year, Jamie had not been in school for 18 months.

Ricky had also become estranged from the Queen Elizabeth school, which both attend.

There is no formal process of involving schools in Asbo proceedings, though in Mansfield the youth offenders' team has set up a programme to help improve relationships between disaffected pupils and their schools.

"We've introduced a system we believe is unique, where we hold school clinics for young offenders," Mr Childs explains. "And one of the first cases we came across was young Jamie's. I reintroduced him to the school.

He'd had a fixed-term exclusion and never had a back-to-school meeting, although the school had written to his parents several times. There'd been a total breakdown of communication. I'd known Martin Harris for a long time and got on well with him, so I was able to help."

Unfortunately, the involvement of the youth offenders' team was brief, and, after being integrated back into school last year, Jamie was soon excluded again. Now he attends part-time. Ricky usually goes, though he's off today, but neither sees much value in education. Ricky says he's been tarred with the same brush as his older brother. "I don't like school; it's boring," he says. "And one teacher said something about Jamie being in the paper; it was like I was bad too. But I'm not Jamie."

Jamie's attitude is similarly negative. Asked if he has any plans about what he'd like to do after he leaves school, he shrugs.

The head of the school did not return calls from The TES. David, Tommy and Shane have all left school without qualifications, and none has found work, although David hopes to join the army. The three younger children, however, all attend Ladybrook primary, where headteacher David Warsop is happy with their progress. He indicates a small garden outside his window, in the centre of which stands a bird table. Martin Harris made and donated the table, he says, when the garden was planted in memory of a Ladybrook pupil killed in a road accident three years ago.

"We have no problems with the little ones," he says. "They are lovely children. And although we don't tend to get their parents in to open evenings, if you stop Martin he's always happy to talk."

Whether good relationships such as this can save the younger Harrises from the same fate as their older brothers remains to be seen. Inspector David Shardlow, the police commander for this part of Mansfield, believes the authorities face a huge challenge. "We live in an old, established mining community," he explains. "And people here have traditionally settled their disputes by fighting. The use of violence is the norm for some sections of the community. We're trying to change a culture, and with the best will in the world we've got a difficult job to do. I think it will get worse before it gets better."


* Anti-social behaviour orders, or Asbos, were introduced in April 1999 under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. Their use was extended under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, which came into force in January 2004.

* The Government made tackling anti-social behaviour its main priority in the last Parliament. It set up an anti-social behaviour unit in the Home Office, led by the former head of the Homelessness Directorate, Louise Casey.

* In the four-and-a-half years after Asbos were introduced, 1,623 orders were issued in England and Wales. Just 38 applications were refused.

* Asbos are orders granted by magistrates under civil law. Breach of an order is a criminal offence and can lead to imprisonment.

* The minimum term for an Asbo is two years, but they can be imposed for life, and on anyone from the age of 10.

* Local authorities, the police, the British Transport Police and registered social landlords can all bring Asbo cases to court.

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