There’s been a riot in my living room

Nigh on every evening when I come home from work I am confronted with carnage. Sofas and blankets made into tents, a carpet of toy food and unidentifiable pieces of plastic toy, and a sprinkling of real food debris. And somewhere hidden amongst it two little monsters with angelic grins, and a weary, weary looking Daddy.

But the riots are connected to the family in more serious ways.

David Cameron spoke in Parliament last week about the rioters coming from dysfunctional families, and elsewhere about a “sickness” in part of society. I’m glad of one thing: that these riots have sparked a debate of sorts about whether or not we need to crack down or look a bit harder at what is behind all of this and work out how to stop it happening again. But so far as I can tell there is not much being said about the intergenerational nature of this social problem we all acknowledge but struggle to understand.

On Friday we were treated to the heartwarming story of a London Borough which has served an eviction notice on the Mother of a man charged with an offence related to the rioting. Quite apart from the question of this Mother’s culpability, her son’s culpability has not yet even been established. Judging from the article linked to above this is not going to be an isolated action. I struggle to see how this kind of approach can be anything but counterproductive (if it is successful, which remains to be seen). Instead of one socially disengaged youngster you end up with a whole family which is homeless, resentful, and probably a greater burden on society in the long run. The leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, essentially adopted a “not my problem mate” approach to questions about the consequences of making this family intentionally homeless [edit: on Radio 4s PM programme on Friday]. But it will be somebody’s problem and somebody will have to pick up the tab.

I won’t have been the only family lawyer watching the cctv footage of the looting and violence with fingers crossed, hoping that I won’t see one of my care clients or their children peeking out from under a hoodie. I’d like to see the stats on the proportion of care leavers, looked after children, and children with a CP or CIN Plan. Based on an entirely unscientific random sample of tv interviews I’ve seen, a high proportion of the rioters were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds and judging from their almost universal inarticulacy are probably not highly educated. Clearly the rioters are not a homogenous, and there have been examples reported of rioters who are in employment, indeed in public service, but I certainly haven’t seen any Charlie Gilmour types.

And the point is this: we remove children from the care of parents whose care is neglectful, dangerous or just plain bad. That may (or may not) improve the life chances for that child, and may (or may not) improve the chances of them being a valuable, engaged member of society. But it doesn’t stop the parents being poor parents. And it doesn’t stop them getting knocked up again. And again. And again. So it’s no kind of solution on a societal level. Its a very expensive way to do things. Costly on both a financial and a human level.

Not every parent can be made a better parent, a good enough parent, a safe parent. But we don’t try hard enough to help those with potential to achieve change. Nobody accepts responsibility for helping a parent make change – not the Local Authority, the court, the NHS, the LSC…And that will cost us, both financially and socially. We fail the parents, who are overwhelmingly just abused or neglected children now grown up. We fail the children, born into a situation where they must spend months in foster care and proceedings until they can achieve “permanence” through adoption or placement with family, who perhaps could have had a chance of being raised by their parents had they been offered the therapy they so desperately needed when the previous child was removed. We fail the ones who fall through the net and get left unnoticed in homes where they are unsafe or neglected (yes, we are still missing them even after Baby P).

My care parent clients are in the main not unpleasant people or deliberately bad parents. Apart from those unlucky enough to have a psychiatric condition most struggle with parenting because of their life experiences as a child – sexual or physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, parents with alcohol abuse or drug addictions, repeating a cycle of abusive relationships. The harder they strive to be different from their parents the more they seem to fail, and the more they begin to believe they are useless. Not all of them think they have a problem, not all of them want to change. But many do. And when they desperately want help to do that, when the expert instructed in the care case has identified what therapy or rehab they need, it is “outside of the child’s timescales” either because of the length of treatment required or because of the 2 year waiting list (if the treatment is even available without charge) – and the child is gone. We know they’ll be back, pregnant again, same facts, different case number. But nobody sees it through, attempts to prevent another round of care proceedings by helping the parent to access the treatment and supporting them through it. It is ultimately the parent who needs to drive change, to make things happen, but wouldn’t it be so much more likely to succeed if they were supported, if they were able to access treatment before they lost the momentum? That for me is the single most frustrating aspect of my job. Expert reports full of “if only”s and lost potential.

Everyone is asking what has caused the riots, as if it’s an unfathomable mystery (it must be an invisible pathogen). But that’s the wrong question. We are all capable of anarchic antisocial behaviour, but most of us are invested in society and we play by the rules. There are invisible threads that stop us, gossamer lines we don’t cross. What we should be asking ourselves is why some people, mainly young people, don’t think it’s worth sticking to the rules, why they prefer trainers and tvs to other achievements and rewards. If Cameron would spend a week sitting in on care cases he’d probably realise there is nothing mysterious about the causes of these riots.

Each rioter has made an individual choice and a bad one at that, but we have to ask ourselves what are the lives of these kids like that so many have said “Why not?”. Ravi Govindia is sadly not an isolated aberration. The “Not my problem” attitude to these troubled families is absolutely standard, and many of the kids who are mixed up in recent events will have had it as the soundtrack to their childhood. Is it any wonder they fail to give a shit back? (Am I bovvered?)

I’ll tell you what happens when you evict the families of offenders and declare them intentionally homeless (and this article in The Guardian gives another take). The family goes into freefall. The kids go (further) off the rails (crime and anti social behaviour, school drop out, drugs, pregnancy). The parents give up. Their ability to meet the children’s needs is further compromised. The children may end up removed. They place pressure upon on all sorts of other overstretched people and organisations: legal aid (until it’s binned), charities, other families, other local authorities, the NHS, schools. And one day, probably not very far in the future, that kid who was put out on the street for nicking a pair of trainers will become a parent. What then?

So, just as it is socially and financially inefficient to respond to poor parenting by removal of children without supporting change in parents, it’s also socially and financially inefficient to simply punish for crimes committed without investing in families, and investing in communities. Forget the Big Society – its the bigger picture that we’re missing.

Cameron’s stigmatising diagnosis of parts of society as “sick” is both offensive and telling. But to extend the metaphor, it is treatment not quarantine that is needed.

8 thoughts on “There’s been a riot in my living room

  1. […] for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50, and (in a different style) Lucy Reed’s piece on the family law context of the riots and some of the remedies that have been proposed in their […]

  2. Hear, hear. I could not agree more, both on the make-up of parents who end up in the unfortunate position of being in care proceedings (I’d personally estimate it as 2% bad, 98% sad – certainly a tiny minority of parents who set out deliberately to harm their children) and of the frustration as report after expensive report comes in recommending what should be done to help these parents and there being no agency with responsibility or budget to provide such help.

    That, for me, is the real absence in the Family Justice Review, but we know why. Providing support and services for a group of people who desperately need them will cost huge amounts in the short-term (to save more in the long-term) and politicians don’t have the luxury of taking long-term views any more, particularly where the general public would rather ignore or sneer at these people.

    • Yes, the point got short shrift when I gave evidence to the FJR Review Panel last summer (don’t expect any money for anything). I’ve been rather despondent about it since.

  3. I’m so glad your wrote this piece, as I’ve been too incandescent to write anything considered or non-ranty about the response to the riots.

    What you say about 2% bad, 98% sad, bears out the very sad impression of the family justice system I had whilst working in a family assessment centre. I worked mostly with parents who had learning disabilities, and there was so little support for them. The saddest cases were those where one parent had disabilities, and the only way they could demonstrate ‘good enough’ parenting was to stay in an abusive relationship because support wasn’t forthcoming elsewhere. The most shocking thing for me was the enormous proportion (I’d put it close to 100%) of parents who themselves had been in care most of their childhoods. Even if support could be provided in the short term, such is the vicissitudes of publicly funded support there was little guarantee it would last the child’s lifetime, or even more than a year or two.

  4. Excellent blog.
    I think for many who work at the sharp end of criminal and family law, the events of last week possibly came less of a surprise than to others.
    So many parents in care proceedings have already had extensive experience of the same system in their own childhoods. There is a crucial period between the time when individuals, as children, are removed from their parents and before they start having children of their own, that needs to be ulitised for positive intervention of the type you refer to above. Because if it doesn’t happen then, the cycle will almost inevitably begin again….

  5. I agree this cannot be a result of bad parenting alone. In most cases your 2% bad 98% sad sum really does apply.

    It is shocking that just because of one offender in the household, the entire family should have to suffer and lose their home. Indeed this will just cause further problems later.

    Katie Leaver, Deputy Editor of LondonLovesJobs

  6. […] Barrister, Lucy Reed, writing on her Pink Tape blog tries to make sense from non-sense with this thoughtful piece: There’s been a riot in my living room […]

  7. I was at a consultation meeting about the Family Justice Review and eventually noticed that every issue raised seemed more a matter for the NHS than the courts. As well as the issues you raise, support/therapy for children (and some adults) in private law proceedings would be more useful than anything currently on offer in the family justice system.

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