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     Volume 6 Issue 37 | September 21, 2007 |

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Straight Talk

Unhappily Ever After

Once upon a time there were two sisters who lived with their mother. One was 14 years old and the other was 16. One day the two sisters got into a heated argument about the younger sister borrowing the elder sister's top without asking first. This soon escalated to the point where the younger sister insulted her elder sister's boyfriend by telling her that he would “never amount to anything” as he worked in a supermarket. The older of the two became furious at these comments and grabbed her sister's hair and kicked her in the head. In the meantime the mother came and managed to separate the two girls. However, things did not end there. The 14 year old ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife and came back and stabbed her sister in the back. When the younger sister dropped the knife, the injured sibling picked up the knife and stabbed her in the leg. Both the sisters were taken to hospital where the 16 year old subsequently died. The younger sister was acquitted of murder but charged with manslaughter due to provocation and then sentenced to three and a half years' detention. There was no happily ever after in this story and as the mother put it “We feel she (the younger sister) will live with this for the rest of her life and I think that is punishment enough as that is like a life sentence in itself”.

You may think that this is a rather macabre story to be telling you and I would whole heartedly agree with that observation. However, what is more disturbing than the story itself is the fact that it is a true story. These days it is hard to pick up a newspaper or listen to the news without hearing about violent crimes carried out by children and adolescents. In my mind it is more terrifying than hearing about serial killers or mass murderers. What is unsettling is that nowadays many acts of felony, assault and even murders committed by younger people just seem to be more and more common. It makes you wonder what kind of world we are trying to raise our children in. As if there is not enough to worry about without the added fear of what might happen to your child if you let them leave the house without you as you are terrified whether they will return home safely or not. When they go out, will they be mugged for their iPod or mobile phone, will they be abused verbally or physically because of their colour, race or religion or even worse whether they are going to become victims of a more violent crime. A few weeks ago a little boy Rhys Jones, the same age as my 11 year old son, was shot dead while he walked back home from football practice across the car park. He was shot by a hooded youth on a BMX and the authorities feel that it may have been a case of mistaken identity. I am sure that is no comfort whatsoever for the grieving parents of the little boy. He was not involved with any gangs nor did he have any enemies, he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I still remember the murder of a two year old toddler called James Bulger all the way back in 1993. It became a story that captured the headlines and gripped the nation. The reason was that the perpetrators of the brutal murder were two 10 year old boys Jon Venable and Robert Thompson. I recall being shocked and upset by what I read and saw on the news as were the general public in the UK. As one can imagine there was a massive public outburst of distress, outrage and grief at the nature of the crime, especially by the inhabitants of Liverpool where the murder took place. It transpires that the two boys lured the toddler out of a shopping centre where he had been with his mother to a nearby railway track. Here they kicked him and hit him with bricks and stones and also struck him with a heavy iron bar and killed him. Finally they then placed batteries in his mouth before they left his body on the tracks weighing his head down with rubble in the hope that a passing train would run over the little boy and make it seem like an accident. It is a crime that made my blood run cold all those years ago and even writing about it now makes me feel physically sick. How can two children be so cruel and inflict so much pain and suffering on another child? At the time the Lord Chief Justice ordered that the two boys should serve a minimum of ten years behind bars, but the popular press and parts of the public felt that the sentence did not befit the magnitude of the crime and was too lenient and a petition spearheaded by the Sun Newspaper with 300,000 signatures was handed to the Home Secretary at the time Michael Howard to try and increase the time the boys spent in custody. I think many of us were slightly relieved when in 1995 the boys' minimum period to be served was increased to fifteen years. However, this feeling of relief was short lived as the Court of Appeal ruled that the decision of the Home Minister to set the sentence to fifteen years was not lawful and he 'lost his power to set minimum terms for life-sentence prisoners under the age of 18 years'.

To the consternation of many including myself, Thompson and Venables were released in 2001, after serving only eight years of their life sentence. The two boys are supposed to be living under a 'life license', which means that they will be instantly sent back into custody if they break the conditions of their release. The public is also unaware of the whereabouts of the boys as they were given new identities and their location could not be divulged due to an injunction that was imposed shortly after the trial. I am all in favour of second chances and do not believe in witch hunts but I have to admit that it does frighten me to think that people who have committed such a heinous crime could end up as my neighbours or be in contact with my children.

I see young children wandering the streets late at night smoking or drinking, I constantly hear about vandalism of public and private property and that is only the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the day who do we blame for children showing such aberrant behaviour? The society in which we live, or perhaps the parents of these children or is it just nature as opposed to nurture. Maybe it is a combination of all three and we are all to blame. Whatever it is, as a parent all I want is to keep not just my children but other children safe. The only way to begin that process is probably to try and instill in our own children the distinction between right and wrong and help them attain a sense of self respect and self worth. We cannot always be there to protect them but can only hope that the guidance we give them will help them stay safe...

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