Anti-social Behaviour: Is It The Result Of Legislation Promoting Children's Rights?
Newspaper reports on the life and death of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter make harrowing reading. Victims of abuse and anti-social behaviour by local youths, the lives of both were made a misery for years. However, despite making no fewer than thirty-three complaints to the police, her plight, and that of her daughter, was ignored. Until, unable to endure the situation any longer, she ended their misery in the only way she knew how: by taking her daughter to a remote place, and setting fire to the car.
I could weep for them both.
TACKLING ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR? HOW?
Three points particularly interested me about the story. One is the fact that the neighbourhood, we’re told, is the epitome of suburban serenity. The other is that one of the neighbours is reported, in The Daily Telegraph, as saying, “These days you can’t touch kids, and they know it. . . The laws have become so technical that instead of protecting people, they have made the world more unstable.” And finally, in a bid for votes, we have Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Great Britain, telling us that “Wherever there is disruptive behaviour, we will be there to fight it.”
Pardon? I’m with the neighbour here! In my opinion, it is the government’s laws on human rights – child rights in particular – which have created the situation in the first place.
WHEN CHILDREN’S RIGHTS SUPERSEDE COMMON SENSE
Of course it’s only right and proper that we should do all we can in protecting children’s rights. Children’s welfare should be paramount. But when the so called rights of the child disempower those adults who could be, and should be, protecting, nurturing and raising them - to the point at which children become feral - can we truly say that we are delivering the sort of protection which children need?
Perhaps I should declare, at this point, a personal concern. My children grew up, first in leafy suburbs, later in rural countryside. Convent educated, they enjoyed the combined privileges of weekly boarding and an affluent home-life, which included owning their own boats and ponies. From cradle to adulthood they had a stay-at-home mother who was passionately and actively interested in their development academically, emotionally and morally. And a father who, despite his drinking habit, was there for them – at least most of the time.
PARENTS TACKLING ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR ARE STYMIED
Two of my daughters went on to achieve university degrees, marriages and professions. One went off the rails. I knew her rights should be to expect from her parents protection, encouragement, and the instilling of self-discipline. She knew them as something else. Something that made me powerless in the face of the law. Rebelling against all authority she eventually ran away from home and ended up with a thirteen-year heroin addiction.
So much for governments protecting the rights of children. This took place in 1977: more than thirty years ago. Has anything changed? In the light of Fiona Pilkington’s experience and Gordon Brown’s empty promises, it would appear not.
I’ve used the events of my daughter’s experience in my novel, A Painful Post Mortem. Here, the main character, Claire, whose daughter, Katya has died, is reflecting about children’s rights and the resulting erosion of parental authority.
“KATYA WAS JUST sixteen when she ran away from home. Having, by fair means and foul, secured my reluctant agreement for her to leave the Convent, she joined Rosie – now in the Sixth Form – at the local Comprehensive. Once the divorce went through and Mark married Maureen, he ceased to pay the school fees so I was, in any case, left with no option. But where Rosie buckled down to the new regime and concentrated on her ‘A’ levels, Katya used her new-found freedom to pursue an entirely different sort of life.
When I was asked, once again, to find alternative education for Katya and she expressed a (previously unmentioned) yearning to go into hairdressing, I succeeded in begging a place on a course at the Technical College twenty-five miles away in the city. At least there, I reasoned, the curriculum included the core subjects of Math. English, Biology and French, with the possibility of GCSE’s at the end of it. The downside was that because of the distances involved between the college and home, Katya had to board during the week. It meant that she had no adult supervision. Within months she was involved with a gang of bikers, whose notoriety had already reached the newspapers.
A row with Katya – one of what I thought of as a normal, but exhausting, display of adolescent rebellion – took on, one Spring weekend, an altogether different hue. A diversity of opinion as to what would be a reasonable time to return home after an outing quickly became a heated exchange which, in turn, became an inferno.
‘I hate you,’ screamed Katya. ‘I’m leaving home and never coming back.’
Blackened trails of tears and mascara coursed down the childish contours of her face. In an attempt to quench the flames of my own fury, I drew a deep breath.
‘Well I love you,’ I said, loudly voicing a sentiment I knew to be true but which, at that precise moment, felt unutterably alien.
‘You’ve never loved me,’ shouted Katya. ‘But at least someone does. I’m going to live with Andy when he gets out of prison.’
‘Andy’, so the newspapers testified, was the son of a surgeon. So far so good. He was also, regrettably, the leader of the bikers. More deplorably, he and his followers were on remand for the kidnap and gang rape of a teenage girl. Confronted with my analysis of the situation, Katya’s response was to denounce the victim as a tramp, the police as corrupt, and Andy as the injured party.
There is no reasoning with teenage logic. I knew it, but like thousands before me, I tried. And lost.
‘You never liked me,’ Katya spat. ‘It was always Rosie this and Rosie that.’
Stumbling, her limbs flailing and her hair streaming wildly behind her, she ran from the house. By the time I followed her down the drive to the road, there was only the roar of an engine and the smell of motorbike exhaust to explain her disappearance.
All evening I waited. When the pubs turned out and Katya didn’t return, I rang the local police station. Fairling Dale was a small community, isolated from the nearest town as much by pride and independence as by the convoluted folds of the hills and crags of the Peak District. Sergeant Gillespie was as sympathetic and as keen to help as any rural policeman. He reported having seen Katya earlier that evening, in the company of a crowd of bikers. To the best of his knowledge, they had headed off for the nightlife of the city. He urged me to inform the County Police Headquarters of her disappearance, pointing out her age, and the undesirability of the company she was keeping. He wished me luck and pledged his support.
All next day, I waited. Once, Mark would have been my first port of call for assistance. Now, reluctant to confirm his judgement on my competence as a mother, I was at a loss to know who to turn to for advice. The doctor? Given my recent history with the surgery, I thought it unlikely that he would take on an avuncular role. My parents? They were abroad. My Derbyshire church? In the middle of an interregnum, it had no incumbent available. In desperation, deploring my ignorance and stupidity, I thumbed through the Telephone Directory and rang the Probationary Service. They, surely, were used to dealing with young offenders and would be able to offer help and guidance?
‘I’m afraid that until your daughter actually gets into trouble, there’s nothing we can do,’ said a sympathetic male voice at the other end of the line when I recounted the story, at length. ‘You could always try Social Services, I suppose.’
Frantic by now, I found and dialled the number. It wasn’t that my faith had deserted me; nor that I thought God too busy. But he needed a helping hand, I reasoned. Mine!
The man from Social Services was full of apology.
‘Sixteen? Is that how old you said your daughter is? I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’
‘But she’s a minor!’ My voice went up an octave. ‘I thought if you were under age you couldn’t leave home without your parents’ consent?’
‘Technically that’s true. But if a young person can support themselves –’
‘Well there you are then. She can’t! She has no job. No savings.’
The pause at the other end of the line was loaded. I felt close to tears.
‘Are you trying to tell me something I don’t know?’
The Social Services man cleared his throat. ‘At sixteen a young person can draw benefits –’
He left me to draw my own conclusion. Speaking slowly and clearly, I summarised my understanding of the situation.
‘So what you’re saying is that the government enshrines the rights and responsibilities of parent and child in law, by stating that a child can’t leave home without parental consent. Then it bends the law to make it permissible for a child to leave home without parental consent, providing the child is self-supporting. Then it completely flouts its own law by providing the means of support for those for whom it would not be permissible i.e. those without their own means of support.’
The silence at the end of the phone told me all I needed to know.
‘Given that the government is using taxpayers’ money,’ I said, ‘doesn’t it strike you as a little hypocritical?’
‘I am sorry Mrs StJohn. Believe me, I do sympathise.’
‘What it means, in effect, is that my husband and I are financing our daughter to put herself in danger, and to contravene the law of the land.’
‘I am sorry,’ the man repeated.
‘You do realise that she’s running away to live with an alleged rapist? What does the State have to say about that?’
‘Technically –’ more throat clearing ‘– a young person is considered to be out of moral danger at sixteen. That’s the term used. I’m afraid that puts your daughter outside our jurisdiction. She can live with whoever she pleases.’
‘Out of moral danger?’ I was incensed. ‘But that’s ridiculous. The day before your sixteenth birthday it’s illegal to have a sexual relationship. Then suddenly, next day, it’s okay to move in with someone on bail awaiting trial for kidnap and rape!’
I rang off. My frustration was replaced with bewilderment. And a sick fear for Katya’s safety.”
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.
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