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Youth violence – we have the evidence, but do we have the will?


March 10, 2021

While we at Coram fully endorse the analysis and recommendations made by the Children’s Commissioner in her report Still not Safe: The public health response to youth violence I do not believe it goes far enough. Our daily work with children and young people provides ample evidence of the harm being done to children and young people ‘hidden in plain sight’. We endorse the Children’s Commissioner’s report in its proposed solutions – but we need to go further with a complete transformation of services for children at risk of harm.

The evidence is that addressing the needs of the family in isolation from community and societal factors will have limited success. We will only reduce levels of violence through coordinated, joined up action bringing together individuals and working across sectors. We instinctively know, and research confirms, that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) both within families and their communities, but also society itself, correlates with alarming outcomes for children and young people. Shortened life span due to poorer physical and mental health and the hugely increased risk of negative experiences, such as being caught up in violence are evident in individual narratives. Experiencing fraught relationships or abuse within a family matters, and witnessing violence in communities, poverty and ingrained discrimination add to the adversity suffered by some of our children with lasting consequences.

The public health approach* has to be the way to tackle the ACEs that propel children into gangs and crime, but we are a long way from achieving our ambition.  A public health approach needs all of us to act together with a shared vision and plan but The Marmot Report evidences little progress. Local Authorities cannot resolve complex problems on their own and yet CAMHS services (so important for early intervention) are woefully underfunded to meet the need and staff shortages are an ongoing problem across sectors – resulting in organisations driving individual priorities rather than acting together with coherence.

There are also the challenges of racism and poverty – increasingly recognised as ACEs, and requiring compassionate leadership at every level to shift. Statistics indicate that children who are attracted to gangs are all too often poor and, in London, disproportionately black.

Children need to feel they belong and can succeed in our society by recognising early on that success is indeed possible – and yet we continue to incarcerate the most vulnerable when distress has often been  evident and untreated.  Our prisons and mental health wards clearly demonstrate this. Success in school still largely correlates with family wealth and exclusions from school are several times more likely for the poor and also our black boys where the levels of stop and search during early lock down months, already high for black youth, rose exponentially for no good reason adding to feelings of marginalisation and lack of a level playing field – in short an adverse experience for a community of children.

Acting to prevent through a public health approach will take time to show dividends but this pandemic has shown that for each one of us to be safe then all of us have to be safe. We need to act now by integrating cross sector actions towards a common vision for children to transform the current way we work, driven nationally but delivered at the community level, addressing factors at the family, community and societal levels. It is not acceptable that those children already suffering adversity live in poverty and in poor housing with trajectories often leading to gangs, violence and eventually even prison.

We need to act on behalf of individual children where distress is apparent almost from the day they enter primary school-, using what we know  to act on behalf of society and continuously learning more about how we use the public health approach for the wider group.

We know what the solutions are – it is transformative action that is needed, and the political will to bring it about. I want to see a high level authoritative working party (SAGE) addressing the crisis that is children’s social care and attacking it as if it were the pandemic. For generations we have seen children suffering the same kinds of adversity falling into crime with negative consequence to individuals and the public purse. They are hidden in plain sight. Watching is not acceptable. We need to act or the violence will continue unchecked.

*The public health approach aims to provide maximum benefit for the largest number of people. To prevent violence based on this approach, a broad segment of a population are exposed to prevention measures to reduce and prevent violence at a population-level.

Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent OBE, Director of Special Projects at Coram, is leading a project to develop solutions to knife crime in London.

For more on the subject of ACEs follow the link here.


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