How do we beat youth violence? Switch focus away from punishment

In the spring, I sat in meetings with my peers who work in serious youth violence and we discussed what could be done to prevent more killings over the summer. We were all still dealing with heightened emotions after the murder of Myron “MDot” Yarde and there was a sense of frustration and hopelessness. The general consensus was that it was about to be a “hot” summer and we all knew the potential of violence was high.

So, considering our concerns were being voiced – much like they are before every school holiday – and considering we are starting to understand the patterns of serious youth violence, why aren’t more preventative strategies being put into place? Have we as a society stopped caring about our children and young people, or has teenage murder and knife crime become so normal that we no longer notice when a child dies?

In August alone we have failed Andre Aderemi, Lance Scott Walker, Andrew Oteng-Owusu and Leoandro “Showkey” Osemeke, the last of whom had been at Myron’s funeral in April. And whether we accept it or not, we have also failed those who perpetrated these crimes, because if these now murderers have not had previous involvement in statutory agencies or the criminal justice system, I would be extremely surprised.

We have also seen many stories in the news that would have us believe that knife crime is solely a London issue and is predominately a problem for black communities, but this is wrong. Knife crime affects us all and according to Home Office statistics, the UK’s hot spots for knife crime include Cleveland (first place) and Durham (third place). But regardless of where or who the victims and perpetrators are, this is becoming an epidemic.

So the obvious question is, what can we do? There is no easy answer and we can no longer place blame on one particular person or agency. This is about us as a society coming together and being focused in our solution, part of which is to fully acknowledge violence as a public health issue and treat it as such because the current punishment-focused intervention is not working.

Dr Gary Slutkin from the Chicago based organisation Cure Violence treats violence as a “contagious health issue”, using trained outreach practitioners to detect and interrupt conflict in the community. In the UK, Scotland, which previously had some of the highest levels of knife crime, now states on its government website that “crime is at a 41-year low and the number of homicides and crimes of handling an offensive weapon are at their lowest level since records began”.

Scotland makes similar interventions to Cure Violence. Its Violence Reduction Unit aims to reduce violent crime and behaviour by working with partner agencies to achieve long-term societal and attitudinal change. It also focuses on enforcement, to contain and manage individuals who carry weapons or who are involved in violent behaviour. The unit aims to explore best practices and develop sustainable, innovative solutions to the deep-rooted problem of violence. England and Wales have some amazing projects scattered around that tackle youth-related knife crime but there is yet to be a strong, fully funded strategy in place focused on prevention and cause, rather than the symptoms.

A psychotherapist once posed this question to me: “If I am seeing a child in a therapy session and the child kicks me, do you think the child would be more or less likely to kick me again?” He explained that the child was more likely to kick him again. His next question was, “so if a child is stabbed, is the child more or less likely to carry a knife?” His answer again was the child would be more likely to carry a knife. This is important because on the court reports of many of the young men I work with who have been convicted of murder, it often says something along the lines of “has previously been stabbed so should have known better”.

Yes it can be argued that young people who have been stabbed or violently attacked have a higher tendency to be violent – although this is more common for those children who have experienced complex trauma from a very young age, whose trauma is often ignored, untreated and more than likely mislabelled as ADHD.

To have a brief understanding of trauma is to know that a traumatised young person, perhaps one suffering from PTSD for example, will try to work through their trauma through re-enactment to master their emotions. The re-enactment could play out in the young person now carrying a knife for two reasons: because he believes he will be a victim again and on some level is still the victim trying to get to grips with his reality; because he wants to be the victimiser and move away from the position of victim.

This is a complex issue, one that too many of us have begun to shy away from, but as this summer shows, it cannot be ignored. We must work together to find and implement the solutions, and fast.

 

This article was originally published in The Guardian

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