Over the last 3 weeks, I have watched the series What Makes a Murderer on Channel 4 with immense personal and professional interest. To say that I was ‘glued’ to the TV would be an understatement – it is one of the most significant documentaries I have ever seen.
For over 43 years l have looked after other people’s children, I am also the mother of two girls now in their thirties and I have never subscribed to the view that some children are born evil or a bad upbringing fully explains why some fail while others thrive. Over the years I have seen too many flaws in that argument to rely on it absolutely.
I was involved with the care of 10-year-old Robert Thompson at the time of the murder of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger and a decade later with 16-year-old Karl McCluney while he awaited trial for the murder of a 2-year-old toddler in 2008. Both were known to children’s services before the crime, both had suffered adverse childhood experiences, yet they were different in so many ways. They were not monsters, but they had, both committed a horrendous crime and we still don’t know why.
The view that Jon Venables followed Robert’s leadership is not one that I have ever shared, and I have always felt very strongly that the actions of Karl were not driven by free will. Yet the suggestion that Karl presented with characteristics of a syndrome seen in another child was not considered to be helpful to his defence… why?
Over the years I have thought deeply about the different experiences of the children I have looked after, their different temperaments and personalities and their social, emotional and educational difficulties. Even with my own children who were raised by the same parents, went to the same schools and grew up in the same village, the differences were stark. At primary school, a teacher said my 5 years old had an attitude problem… the label stuck, and more were added until eventually, they became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Statutory education failed her then blamed her and no doubt ‘the parents’ for her lack of success at school as she teetered on the edge of self-destruction in her early teenage years. Paradoxically it was also education and parental resilience that saved her. When she returned to education as a mature student at a small community college to study media, one of the tutors asked her if she thought she might be dyslexic, it had not previously been suggested. For her, it was like a light had been turned on when the report came back confirming this and I will never forget her response, “I’m not mad and I’m not bad”. Of course, there were still hurdles to overcome but with the right support my daughter now proudly holds a first-class honours degree in psychology and a masters in psychological research methods, which she passed with distinction.
We have known for years that adverse childhood experiences and special educational needs have detrimental effects that put children at a higher risk of poor outcomes – we spend vast amounts of money picking up the pieces when things go wrong and our children are unable to navigate the perilous journey to adult life, wreaking havoc on society and themselves along the way. What we do not know, is why some children with similar histories survive adversity and others do not and in response we play a blame game, “blame the parents”, “blame the teachers”, “blame the caregivers, “blame them, they were born evil”
… social workers are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t, mental health services can’t keep up with demand, prisons are bursting at the seams with failed children come of age, and politicians argue over whose fault it is.
The certainty I take from the work of Professor Adrian Raine and forensic psychologist Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai is that behaviour is explained by the complex interaction between biological, psychological and social factors that can be mitigated if identified and remedied with the right intervention at the right time.
This ground-breaking research and the science on which it is based holds life changing potential for our children, their families our communities and ultimately society as a whole.
The ability to make scientifically informed judgements about behavioural risk holds the promise of improved decision making by those charged with the responsibility of reducing harm across the life course and keeping our communities safe.
The film crew have delivered this message in a sensitive and respectful way with no attempt to lessen responsibility or deny harm caused. Listening to the stories of John, Paul and Anthony and the explanation for their violence left me in no doubt, we owe it to future generations to act now on the causes of crime.
To do nothing would be a crime against humanity.
Amanda Knowles MBE