The Times

December 3 2000

Children learn to kill in a moral dead zone

Melanie Phillips
The Sunday Times

The anguished father of Damilola Taylor has demanded a meeting with the prime minister. The anger of this cruelly bereaved family, who came to Britain for health treatment for another child, is unanswerable. What kind of society is this, one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world, where a child is bullied at school and then stabbed to death?

North Peckham, the London estate where the 10-year-old died, has been put under the spotlight and the people who run the borough don't like it. The streets are filthy, strewn with rotting rubbish and used syringes; crack cocaine is sold openly on the streets; there is widespread bullying in its schools; people are afraid to go out at night because of violent crime; the visible police presence is minimal, with the division covering the estate short of 46 constables.

Imagine, then, the disgust and outrage of local residents last Thursday when the streets were scrubbed, swept and disinfected purely for the home secretary's visit. It wasn't just the physical neglect that was being sanitised by Southwark council. The head of Oliver Goldsmith primary school, where Damilola was a pupil, had been instructed not to speak to the press. Journalists were being urged to write about the wonderful improvements to the estate brought about by the borough regeneration project.

We don't know who killed Damilola or why. What we do know is that he and other children were being bullied at school and that gangs of teenage boys regularly attack other children, stabbing them in the legs, just like the assault on Damilola.

This goes far beyond the North Peckham estate. As the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, has observed, an alarming new phenomenon has developed. Bullying in the playground is now spreading to the streets. Children are attacking other children and robbing them of their mobile phones, Pokémon cards, money or even food.

Politicians blame this on the materialism of our society. But the reasons go far deeper than this. As Stevens suggested, these attacks are being carried out for credibility and status in neighbourhoods where crime has become the norm. It's not material possessions or their absence that lie behind Damilola's death so much as a moral, spiritual and emotional vacuum.

For all the squalor of the area where the Taylor family was living, millions of pounds have been poured into North Peckham, with new housing and a new library and sports centre.

But material improvements aren't the point. What's missing is the human dimension. Violent children hold other lives cheap because they believe their own lives to be worthless.

Their violence arises from rage, rooted in emotional chaos and neglect as their families fragment. They rob not for possessions but for the sake of violence and for power. With no male role models in their families, boys define themselves by "thugging out". Anyone smaller, cleverer or different becomes a target for bullying or attack.

This dreadful crime shows that prejudice crosses racial divisions. Most of the children at the school where Damilola was bullied are not white. When people feel dispossessed, they turn on anyone who is different. A bright, focused African child from a secure middle-class family was bound to be the target of jealousy from other children, black or white, who are seen and see themselves as devalued.

There are now heavy concentrations of very angry and maladjusted children, largely because of catastrophic levels of parental neglect and family disintegration. For black children, real or perceived racial prejudice further deepens their sense of inadequacy. Children bully others out of profound feelings of anger and powerlessness.

The head of Damilola's primary school has been praised for improving both teaching standards and his response to bullying. But according to Gerry German, of the Communities Empowerment Network, schools commonly fail to deal properly with bullying or disruptive behaviour. Instead of getting the child to face up to the consequences of his behaviour on the spot, through apology or restitution, teachers tend to exclude him from school, particularly if he is black.

If his bad behaviour has been in response to provocation, he tends to be punished along with, or instead of, his tormentor. This fuels a sense of injustice, which helps deepen the alienation that turns the child against the world. Often, says German, a child will have no idea why he was excluded from school. So his bad behaviour spirals out of control.

Camilla Batmanghelidjh runs a charity called Kids' Company, which has had remarkable success with some of the most violent and disturbed children in the area. She says none of the agencies supposed to deal with violent children is doing the job properly. There aren't enough education places for children excluded from school.

Parents are often drug addicts, she says, and grossly neglect their children, but social workers are restricting their cases to physical or sexual abuse and have no time for cases of neglect. As for the police, how can they make an impact in an area where crime is the norm?

Young boys are used as "mules" for crack cocaine dealers, who pay them in cannabis or the cash to buy it. They use cannabis, she says, to dull their agitation and rage. Three boys who use her centre are now in a psychiatric hospital because heavy cannabis use exacerbates a predisposition to mental illness. When she tells such boys of the brain damage that cannabis can cause, they are astonished and horrified. Nobody has ever told them of the harm it can do.

Such projects illustrate the fact that the roots of child violence lie in the collapse of self-discipline and attachment resulting from parental selfishness, criminality and irresponsibility, very often caused by precisely the same collapse of values one generation back.

In America, cities with similar problems of violent children and epidemic crime are being transformed by policies based on tough love. "Zero tolerance" policing has put high numbers of officers on the streets. Mass fatherlessness is being tackled as a core issue. And, significantly, the churches are heavily involved in rescue work.

In Victorian Britain, similar problems were turned round by evangelical Christians who understood that at the root of the threatened social breakdown lay moral and spiritual decay.

American church initiatives are successful because they are not afraid to give a moral lead, in contrast to so many secular agencies that tiptoe around in terror of being judgmental.

In Britain, however, the problem is that so many churches have themselves fallen prey to the same "value-neutral" mindset.

But even the most robust projects aren't enough. The state has to stop providing incentives for the destruction of the family. Even the Rowntree Foundation, which for years sanitised the effects of family disintegration, has now produced research showing that broken families are most likely to create unemployment, violence and crime.

People have to feel connected and looked after, and thus rediscover the concept of self-discipline. Only then will we begin to tackle our children's increasingly murderous rage.

Melanie Phillips

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.