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Displaying items by tag: my story

We have a tendency to think of trauma as a single traumatic event, as a one-off event, as in surviving the 1989 Marchioness sinking in the Thames. Such trauma can be usefully healed by disaster counselling a welcome, although fairly recent development.

But the trauma presented in My Story is the severe, multiple and prolonged trauma affecting the lives of millions of children. Such forms of trauma include neglect, abandonment and loss, sexual and physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, growing up in a family culture where crime and violence is a normal state of affairs and can be transmitted down through the generations as intergenerational trauma. As one of our interviewees says: "My dad's always struggled with drink and drugs, my dad's dad is an alcoholic, he used to beat up my dad, he used to rape my aunties and he used to have his friends abuse my aunties."

Extensive research has shown that witnessing domestic violence is a key risk factor for childhood violence.

The key to understanding childhood violent crimes lies in understanding the multiple traumas that lie behind them. And that is the key to understanding where interventions can be made. But what about the all too frequent question: 'Why these children?' Other children have similar trauma and don't commit violent crime.

It is vital to be clear about trauma. Trauma is an epidemiological issue. Let me remind you of the origins of modern epidemiology. In the 1854 Broadwick Street cholera epidemic in Soho where 616 people died in the worst case of cholera ever to hit the UK, John Snow traced the cause to fouled water in the Broad Street pump.

The pump was closed and the infections stopped. There was no research attempting to find out why some people died from the bacterial infection and some didn't even get ill. John Snow closed the pump poisoned with human faeces.

Unfortunately epidemiology tends to be marginalised both intellectually and medically. The World Health Organisation reports that between 60 to 90 percent of all cancers are environmentally caused. Yet the search for a cure for cancer gets all the money at the expense of cleaning up our environment. In the case of asbestos, the politics is even clearer. Asbestos needs to be removed. But the talk is about who is vulnerable to asbestosis and who is not.

Similarly if there is severe, multiple and prolonged trauma, some children are going to be vulnerable to committing violent crime as shown by our three interviewees. It is simple epidemiology.

The pump needs to be closed.

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Whenever a serious injustice is committed against a child by its caretakers there is implicitly a ‘third party’ involved in this abuse. Alongside perpetrator and victim is society – the adults in the world around the child and the institutions put in place to protect the child. The role of the ‘third party’ can either be that of witness and rescuer of the child from the danger they are in. Or the third party can play the role of bystander and perhaps unintentional colluder in the continuing trauma and abandonment unfolding in the child’s life.

Throughout the stories in My Story, the interviewees describe failed attempts by a range of services to intervene in the trauma they were experiencing. They describe even more examples of points where opportunities for intervention were missed altogether by the different services involved in their lives: teachers, social workers, police, courts and the care system.

Each one of these young people was exhibiting well known signals of severe distress in the years leading to their offence, and these symptoms escalated in the months immediately prior to the offence. Two interviewees describe the loss of their father as a turning point in their ‘going off the rails’ shortly before their offences. They were regularly in trouble with teachers and police during this period, and yet no-one around them was able to recognise or act on these obvious signs of profound trauma and grief. Yet it is has been demonstrated that (recent) loss is a key risk factor in grave childhood violence. These two young people went on to be involved in violent offences including murder and false imprisonment.

Another interviewee describes interventions from the age of 18 months, when social services put him on the child protection register. He was on the register as a result of suspicions he had been sexually abused by his father and was exhibiting sexualised behaviour. There had also been incidents in which his mother hung him over a balcony, threatening to drop him, and in which he was left alone wandering outside in the early hours of the morning. He was not removed from the home until the age of seven, by which time his attachment to his mother was very strong, and he had already been found sexually abusing another child. He was told he had to make a choice between going to a boarding school for children with behavioural difficulties, or of being fully removed from his mother’s care, and not allowed to see her again until he was 16 years old.

At boarding school, he was involved in an incident in which he and other boys barricaded an 11 year old girl into her room and, he says, ‘took turns in having sex with her’. When the school finally broke in to the room, they responded by only asking the boys if they would like to have a shower.

At 13, this boy went on to rape a little girl.

As you read these young people’s stories, you will notice yourself how clear the signs were that something was wrong, and the places where intervention might have been possible. The young people we interviewed are aware that there is much to be learned from their stories, by themselves, by other young people in trouble, by services and perhaps most of all, by parents. They are clear that they want to tell these stories, not because they want sympathy, but because they want to contribute to an understanding of how such grave crimes by young people happen.

I would like to end with the words of one of the interviewees, who gives us some moving advice on how we can respond to and learn from these stories.

‘I don’t want people to read it and go “oh, I feel sorry for him”. I mean there’s no need to, I’m perfectly fine. Everything that’s happened to me happened for a reason and it’s made me the person I am today. So I want people to read it and say these are some of the reasons why I got in the situations that I got in because I thought everything was normal, and I didn’t really understand a lot of things when I was young. So maybe, for example, a young parent reads this and then goes, “Oh I’m a bit like his parents”, and then they go, “Well I don’t want my kid going to jail, I don’t want him to feel like how I felt as a kid, I don’t want him going to jail when he’s like 14, 15 for getting involved in a murder or something like that”. So that’s where I’m coming from really.’

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In a recent interview about his role in the film ‘We Need to talk about Kevin’ actor Ezra Miller playing Kevin describes himself as being ‘haunted’ by playing the role of a teenage boy who commits horrific acts of violence and murder. He says he feels the film has a lot to say about ‘the anger of today’s youth’: ‘If an offspring is not given proper attention it just does whatever it has to, to get attention. People are entitled to nothing in the world except for the one initial thing, the one thing that is so intrinsic for human development – the love of a mother or guardian’.

The young people’s stories in the My Story project reveal that what lies behind the violent and grave crimes they committed is a lot more complex and more violent than simply lacking the love of a mother or guardian. Nonetheless, Ezra Miller makes a crucial point here.

As early as 1944, in his groundbreaking work ‘44 Juvenile Thieves’ researcher and psychoanalyst John Bowlby established the link between what he then termed ‘maternal deprivation’ and criminal behaviour in children. We now understand ‘maternal deprivation’ to mean the abandonment and neglect of the child by the adults who are meant to be its caregivers. Researchers since Bowlby have continued to establish this link between deprivation of care, a lack of a secure base with reliable attachment figures, and crimes of violence committed by young people. Long periods of separation, multiple changes in caregivers, and loss of attachment figures are all significant in the histories of violent young offenders, including the three young people who tell their stories in My Story. Currently, one third of young people in prison grew up in the care system. One of our three young interviewees also spent most of his life in care.

In addition to deprivation of care, the My Story project demonstrates that the narratives of young people who end up committing grave violent crimes also include severe, multiple and prolonged forms of trauma. These additional traumas are key in enabling us to understand the roots of their crimes. By the time of their index offence, these children and teenagers had themselves had many serious violent crimes committed against them. But as we read more specifically about the nature of the traumas and violence in these young people’s histories, we should not forget that at the centre of their stories is the lack of ‘that one initial thing to which all human beings are entitled’: the child’s most basic need for the love and care of a secure attachment figure. As Bowlby puts it: ‘Nothing substitutes for a secure base’.

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To those looking for non punitive alternatives to the standard criminal justice penalties - prison, community sentence, fine - restorative justice carries a lot of appeal. It supposedly enables both victim and offender to reflect on the impact of a crime, for the victim to gain redress and for both to achieve a certain degree of 'closure'. But while talking and resolution might be preferable to punishment and vengeance, is restorative justice the answer?

Published in Relationships Policy

Human relationships are complex; often fraught and conflictual; sometimes violent and traumatic. How we live our lives in the here and now and how we relate to those around us is also deeply influenced by our past and present experiences. As experts in our own lives we all know this to be true. So why is it that the public discussion of conflict, violence and trauma  - in the media, politics and elsewhere - all too often seems to trivialise these difficult and challenging issues?

Published in Relationships Policy

Roger Grimshaw reports on new research from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.


Children found responsible for serious violence make for high profile news stories which dwell on the information made available through a criminal justice process that typically focuses on a key incident.

My Story began with the question: do media and courtroom narratives provide an adequate basis for public understanding of the connection between their childhoods and the incidents of violence for which they are found responsible? And if there is a gap here, what kind of narrative might help to shed more light? We concluded that the stories most evidently missing were from the children themselves.

When asked to tell the stories of their childhoods, what would young people convicted of grave crimes say? My Story presents three distinctive stories that begin to give significant answers.

Unlike intricately constructed forms of narrative, such as histories, normal stories depend on a recognisable sense of spontaneity for their ability to hold our attention. Story telling is also a key part of psychotherapy: the therapist asks the client for a story in order to discover not simply facts but crucially to listen to how experiences have been remembered, how emotions are recalled and recounted, and how the storyteller relates to the actions, as agent, bystander, or, potentially, as victim. My Story has shown how public narratives of trauma can emerge through the same process of ‘witnessing’ that occurs in therapy, demonstrating the quality of experiences through the immediacy of storytelling.

Working closely with therapeutic advisers I interviewed young people on several occasions in prison. After the interviews had been transcribed, I held discussions with the therapists in order to identify the psychotherapeutic significance of the ‘story-in progress,’ especially the emotional tone of the account.  If there were any adverse signs of distress the therapists were ready to give support to the young people. After the consultation with the therapists I would then go back to embark on another phase in the interviewing.

Finally I agreed with the participants edited texts based very closely on recorded interviews. These young people are the authors, having each agreed a non-exclusive copyright licence with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. In recognition of their contribution, the participants have also been offered additional services, such as educational support. As well as cooperation with prison staff, such a complex project has called for strong partnerships - with the Bowlby Centre as a source of therapeutic expertise and with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation providing generous financial support.

While the stories are strongly distinctive and original, the participants talked about life experiences that fitted with the expectations formed by a reading of the literature on violence.  The traumatic experiences recounted include bereavement, interruption of care, abuse and domestic violence, seriously undermining the participants' capacity to develop positive relationships.

A major implication of the project is to renew a debate about the priorities and principles of reactions to serious violence for which children are held responsible. The criminalisation of these children has detracted from our society’s capacity to understand traumatic experiences that should be the target of wider preventive support and intervention.

A central aim of the project has been to witness the experiences of young people. We now hope that others can read their stories and appreciate how the children’s primary attachment relationships have been damaged and how they have tried to come to terms with disturbing outcomes.

Dr Roger Grimshaw is Research Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

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