Child Criminality and Parental Responsibility

Watching the national news the other night, there was a story of a seven year old girl having sexually abused her little brother.

The ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘what’ of the situation were apparently known and is not in the remit of this article. But, as someone who was a psychiatrist for over 35 years, the question I would ask and would want to know the answer to is, if the allegations were true, ‘How did a seven year old girl know to do such actions?’

She was a child doing the actions only appropriate for an adult. These were actions which she should have no notion about at seven years of age.

At seven, children have obviously already noticed the differences between boys and girls. Consequently, there may be questions or even some innocent exploration. Sexual urges result from the hormonal factors, and there are obvious signs of hormonal awakening in both sexes. The age of seven is within the ‘non-sexual latent period’ of time, when girls and boys are learning other skills and information – or, it should be. So, how can actions in a seven year old, amounting to apparent sexual abuse, occur? This should not happen in a normal and natural way of development.

She was not born with that knowledge. That is for sure. When we are born, we have a slate that is clean. So, how did she learn to do such actions?

There are several explanations.

1) Had she been instructed about sexual behaviour? But, could this have been part of the information she received in the ‘enlightened’ school sex education classes?
I doubt that and sincerely hope not!

2) Had she watched sexually explicit films on TV? Many seven year olds are late to bed and are allowed to watch TV with adults, or even unsupervised in their bedrooms. Uncensored material is shown on many TV channels late at night. That is the decision of the channel directors. Videos are easily available. Whatever the opportunity for access, children should never see actions which can ‘poison’ a young mind.

3) Was this a cry for help? In other words, had she had to do the same actions to someone else, an adult, and was trying to tell someone and this was her only way? Or, in fact, had thought, in her young mind, that this behaviour must be acceptable if it was something she had been taught to do or learned about?

I don’t know. But those doing any investigations should. There has to be an explanation of how a child of seven knew to do such reported actions.

What of the parental responsibility?

Dreadful things can happen to children. Harm can happen at the hands of the parents or others responsible for the care of the children but there are usually signs that would indicate that something is amiss. There are people around, neighbours or e.g. social workers, who can notice behaviour that is not acceptable. Social workers should be adequately and expertly trained and have sufficient experience and support before being expected to have all the answers to all situations.

Observation, from training and knowledge, adequate manpower and much time spent is necessary with problem families. Their interactions must be understood. It is very easy to criticise after any event, but hindsight is the ‘lawyer’s best friend’ – and that of a critical public, and always has been. Everyone can be ‘wise after the event’.

I know, from long years of work, that what you learn from books and training is only the beginning. Interest, dedication, observation and a retentive memory coupled with an open and fair mind are essentials in the task of information gathering. I never understood a patient or situation, enough to make major decisions, from someone else’s report or account. For me, my eyes and ears, added to knowledge and experience were necessary for a correct analysis e.g. I had to hear how they phrased sentences besides the content, how they looked, their eye contact, how they accessed information etc. before I knew whether it was normal or abnormal, truth or lies.

Then there are the children, who are the victims of random or even organised crime. These happen when children are unsupervised.

The little girl in Portugal who was abducted was, with two younger children, in a flat with no adult supervision at the time.

We have the dreadful incident of the little boy abducted from the supermarket, and then killed, several years ago. Many years ago, children under about three years of age always wore a harness if in a busy place, if out of their buggy and walking. There was no ‘he/she doesn’t want it’ excuse accepted.

Now, I agree that all children should be safe in whatever circumstance and wherever they may be, but, as yet, we do not live in an ideal world. Others should learn from what happened but I ‘throw no stones’. I am sure the parents involved in such cases throw many stones at themselves and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. I just point out that if children are unsupervised, they are vulnerable to individuals who could harm them. I don’t think there are potential child molesters on every corner, watching and waiting, but for the child who is hurt and their family, one is too many.

Those boys who killed that little boy were ten years of age. They were old enough to know right from wrong. More recently, two boys took another two boys to a place apart and nearly beat them to death. Only the victims’ age, with that added resilience to survive, saved them.

The culprits, in both cases, did not lash out in a sudden anger. In both cases, these children were reportedly taken to a place where no-one would witness what they intended to do. In other words, there was premeditation of the anticipated crime.

Were they evil? What they did was cruel and served Evil very well. However, I ask the same question. How did they know to do what they did? How did their judgment/knowledge of what was right and what was wrong disappear? Or did they never learn right from wrong?

1) Had they been the subject of violence themselves and so acted with transferred revenge/anger?

2) Had their inner worlds become confused with the outer world? eg Had they watched such violence on videos/films and their immature minds become totally muddled as to which was reality and which was fantasy?

3) Were they both suffering from a mental abnormality or drug induced disorder?

Something was amiss for them to know ‘how to do what they did’, as it is not normal behaviour at any age, but even more shocking in children.

During my training there were certain ‘words of wisdom’ from teachers, which I regarded as so important that they were as if ‘written on pillars of stone’ and remained easily accessible in my mind. Many years ago, I went to hear a lecture given by Dr Scott, an eminent forensic psychiatrist. He spoke on the subject of ‘Dangerousness’, something that is or should be uppermost in the minds of psychiatrists.

He said that it was extremely difficult to assess dangerousness. Thoughts were, after all, just thoughts until connected with an action. Until an action has been done it is an unknown possibility or probability. But, once an action had been done, then it could be done again and then the probability stakes were greatly heightened and a repeat action was possible.

He was talking about adults, but I would suggest that children who lose the concept of right or wrong, or have never learned it, are similarly capable, unless some major inner change in belief occurs. Children deserve that the ‘how they know how to do’ is investigated and effective treatment of whatever trauma or beliefs has caused the skew in behaviour.

We all know that drugs and alcohol alters behaviour and often causes violence, but unless these have been part of the equation in a child, there is some other reason behind his/her cruel actions to another child.

I would say that a few are born innately evil and a few born innately good, but the majority are neither one nor the other and learn their beliefs in life by and through the interactions with others whom they meet on their way.

The responsibility for guiding a child along their path of life safely belongs to the parents. Serious rules and laws decided by governments e.g. laws which do not allow corporal punishment, and which restrict alcohol and drugs can help, but not the petty rules about playing conkers!

However, recent governments have encouraged parents to leave the care of young children, in their most vulnerable and learning-to-be years, to others while they go to work. Instead of helping mothers/fathers to stay at home with their young children for at least two and a half to three years to care, guide and build up trust and love (read my article, Nurseries for tiny tots), the governments actively encourage nurseries for tiny children.

Parenthood is the most important job anyone can undertake and many in present day society need to change their priorities to be able to fulfill that self-chosen task.

The government could help by bringing the parents of repeatedly offending children to account along with their offspring, and, in general, parents should be held jointly responsible with their child for their child’s antisocial behaviour. The government could provide compulsory help in nurturing skills in extreme cases or, in the final analysis, combined custodial sentence where behaviour is monitored, treatment is provided and help with drug and alcohol problems initiated.

If people knew without a doubt that the responsibility of parenthood could not be reneged on, and that it is their task is to bring up their children to be decent people in society with no opting out or else they, themselves, are in trouble, then I believe society would gradually change.

For a longer version of this article and to read other articles, see website details in bio below.

My poetry book for primary school children, see bio, is written with the express purpose of encouraging children, 7yrs – 12 yrs to have decent values in life, eg to be kind, caring and sharing. By the use of metaphorical and rhyming verse, read to children on several occasions, these principles can be absorbed and integrated gently.

However, while many of the powerful show greed, deceit and general lack of integrity, and while the rules vary depending on status and wealth, then, whatever is tried, there will always be those who will put two fingers up to society and behave accordingly.

Article is Copyright© Dr A Coatesworth 2010

Dr Audrey Coatesworth was, for 35yrs, a Psychiatrist, and is now retired from medical practice.She specialised in psychotherapy, in particular the treatment of unresolved traumas. Her special interest in this field was the phenomenon of dissociation – related to traumas in childhood. Her articles are written out of concern, and from experience and knowledge.They are not research papers, but her opinion of relevant issues.

She now writes. Her poetry books for children and teenagers are intended to continue her therapeutic work through the medium of rhyming verse and metaphor. These are ‘Growing Up’, ‘Coping with Illness and Grief’ and ‘Choice for Teenagers’.

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