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Getting to the root of youth violence

This time last year, before we all truly appreciated the devastation and disruption Covid-19 would bring, serious youth violence was rapidly rising up the government’s agenda. After a 12-month hiatus, there are welcome signs this issue is coming back into focus. As local systems leaders, these matters are never far from the minds of directors of children’s services and even during the pandemic, with extensive social restrictions in place, too many parents and carers sadly received a knock on the door to tell them their child would not be coming home.

Tougher laws, longer sentences and expanding police powers can only take us so far and such measures will never get to the bottom of why a young person carries a knife in the first place. Yes, we need to understand and act on individual risk factors, such as being out of formal education or early exposure to violence in the home, but unless we turn our attention to wider societal determinants, young lives will continue to be lost on our streets; research clearly shows there are links between higher levels of inequality and increased violence. We need a relentless focus on vulnerability, family support, prevention and early help as well as a suite of intensive interventions to draw on when a child or young person is at very high risk of harm.

In the past it has been difficult at times to see how national campaigns, summits, research and funding programmes fit together. The best way to make headway with the complex and interrelated issues of knife crime, trafficking and criminal and sexual exploitation is for all parts of the public sector, including government, to work together in a coordinated way with voluntary sector under the auspices of a holistic public health strategy. The strengths of families and communities should be at the forefront of this strategy along with widening access to help and support, such as high-quality youth services and local facilities to reach young people where they live.

We’ve made such a lot of progress in recognising the vulnerability of children and young people who display risky, harmful or criminal and/or abusive behaviours because of grooming or exploitation, by being clear they cannot consent to their own abuse. Coercion, fear and threats are features of this abuse meaning at times it can be difficult to separate victim from perpetrator and vice versa, but we must try. Investing now will prevent future costs, misery and hurt.

Jenny Coles, ADCS President 2020/21 and DCS in Hertfordshire.

This article first appeared in the MJ in March 2021 -

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