Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Are young offenders really 'born bad'?

A new report by the Children’s Commissioner this week called ‘I think I must have been born bad’, highlights that mental health care for young offenders is ‘lacking’ and called for more to be done to help address and support young people with mental health and behavioural problems.  It hi-lights that 60% of the young people in custody were found to have speech, language and communication difficulties. This is an awful chicken and egg situation and one that has upset me for years. I know some children with ASD and behaviour problems who are now in the justice system because they are quite simply, misunderstood. Now before you jump down my throat with accusations of 'do-gooder' and 'stupid softy', let me explain some of the reasons why some children with communication difficulties may become 'juvenile delinquents':

It is a fact that there is a very close link between behaviour difficulties and an inability to communicate.  Think about:

Speech/expressive difficulties: Imagine you couldn't talk clearly; people wouldn't take you as seriously as the next person, maybe you couldn't get your wants, needs and ideas across. How frustrated would you be? How tolerant could you remain? Can you guarantee you wouldn't lash out?
Receptive language problems: what if it was like being in a  foreign country most of the time so you didn't understand what was going, couldn't follow even simple instructions or tell what people were saying to you? Would it make you stressed & angry with a  short temper threshold?
Social communication difficulties: Any communication problem makes the person isolated. If someone is an outsider they might want to please or to belong so even if they know something was wrong, they might still do it in an effort to 'belong'. That's an inherent human trait. Also with social communication difficulties they may mis-read the subtle signs or have difficulty knowing right from wrong.

Add to the mix such associated behaviour as 'diversion tactics' i.e. I'm going to distract them from asking me questions by doing something which will put them off (this could be kicking the table to kicking others) and a sieve-like learning so they forge what has been said or forbidden!

Also associated with poor communication, is a poor level of self esteem which is always a bad thing!

The best example I saw last year was a 15 year old boy in a residential special school for emotional and behavioural difficulties. He was on the young offenders register but not in custody as his special school was fairly restrictive. He might have had a speech & language therapy assessment when pre-school but there was no record of any input in the last ten years. He needed a SLT assessment for a statement review but the local authority couldn't do it. I was called in.

He had a terrible record of assaulting staff (they didn't tell me beforehand and left me alone with him but hey, I'm a big girl!) and was a persistent liar. When I assessed him I realised the extent of his receptive language difficulty: he had an auditory memory of just 2 items so most of what was being asked of him, just went straight over his head. This must have been very stressful for him so as a way of getting out of situations or making outcomes predictable, he assaulted staff. This meant he could escape the stressful situation and have a safe predictable  knowledge of exactly what would happen next. Being led off into isolation was, to him, preferable as he knew the drill so well it was comfortable even though it wasn't a pleasurable experience.

He had no verbal reasoning skills so couldn't follow the concept of 'if x happens y will follow'. This meant the strictest of instructions were not followed as he just couldn't get the idea of consequences.

The other tactic he had learned to compensate was a fanciful imagination. He had memorised parts of films and told them in a realistic, very believable way as he if was the main player. This also got him into trouble in a big way but was actually a coping strategy.

If you meet him he appears to be very confident but this is just a front; he is a actually a scared boy with little idea of what is going on around him with extremely poor self esteem. He also had an horrendous home life with alcoholic parents who didn't want him. Are you any closer to understand my point now?

This is just one example and I know this is replicated thousands of times over. We need better assessment, better understanding...... earlier so we can prevent this happening. It's almost too late for the young offenders of today but we can help if we can sort the problems pre-school.

For today's young offenders, we need to stop throwing money at vocational, educational training or even anger management classes unless we assess their levels of understanding. There's no point offerring such courses IF they don't have the language levels to access them.

The full report can be found here



  1. Yes it seems that assessment should be the first stop rather than making assumptions.

  2. Definitely, then whatever the cause of their situation,it could be better addressed. Obviously there are other reasons why children end up in the justice system but they need to be identified too. I think that's the only way to help otherwise it will just happen again and again (as other studies show). We cant just deal with symptoms if we want to improve.

  3. I think, in the UK at least, we have a culture of punishing 'bad' children rather than looking at what's causing the behaviour. I've worked with a few teenagers with challenging behaviour (not many, I'm not brave enough!) and there was a reason for pretty much all of it - usually a difficult home life, although after reading this post I can see it could easily have been a communication difficulty too. Sadly, giving people more understanding and support takes more effort (and often resources, which means money of course) than just labelling them as 'bad'.

  4. I agree entirely Helen! Thank you for your comments.