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Posted Thursday, October 8, 1998


Shrivelled Prune attacks Jack Straw


October 6 1998


Mary Bell writer attacks Straw's new crime Act



THE author Gitta Sereny has criticised the new Crime and Disorder Act for treating child offenders as young as ten as if they had the same capacity as 17-year-olds of telling right from wrong. In an address to social care professionals last night, Sereny, biographer of the child-killer Mary Bell, also blamed parents who were "too pressured by work . . . to find pleasure in family life". She attacked them for condemning their children to "an emotional void" of loneliness and boredom, which sometimes led them to commit antisocial acts.

Delivering the annual lecture organised by the influential social affairs magazine Community Care, Sereny argued that children who committed serious offences were not born "bad" or "evil", but were brought to breaking point either by continuous rejection and abuse, by traumatic experiences or by living in a dysfuntional family.

Sereny, whose book Cries Unheard [published by Macmillan Ltd] was serialised in The Times earlier this year, condemned the Crime and Disorder Act, which came into force last Thursday, for instilling a fear of children in professionals who worked with child offenders. The fact that each of the new Youth Offending Teams to be set up by all local authorities across the country was to include a police officer and a probation officer would send a "wrong, threatening or punitive message" to children and those supposed to care for them.

"It seems to me that this possibly indicates a mistaken analysis of children in potential trouble, or in distress," she said.

What young offenders needed, she added, was not the threat of punishment, but family cohesion and a home environment that gave them self-confidence and encouraged them to seek stimulation instead of excitement.

Children whose parents paid too little attention to them, because of pressures of work, saw too much crime and violence on television. "Without knowing why, they are angry and cannot articulate their anger and their needs except, if no one recognises their unspoken cries, finally in antisocial acts," she said.

Sereny, a prizewinning biographer and investigative journalist, said she believed it was wrong that the new Act abolished one of the few protections that child offenders had, namely the presumption of criminal law that a child aged ten to 14 could be considered to be doli incapax, or incapable of committing an offence.

As of now, all children between ten and 17 are expected and believed to have the same capacity to know the difference between right and wrong.

Sereny quoted a leading article from The Times of August 10, 1861, which commented that two boys of eight from Stockport, Cheshire, who were convicted of the manslaughter of a two-year-old child should not have been treated as if they had the maturity of conscience of an adult because they were too young and too immature.

The two boys, Peter Barratt and James Bradley, were sentenced to one month in prison and five years in a reformatory. Bradley was released six months early from the reformatory, having made great progress, but little is known of Barratt's fate. It is thought he was transported to Australia or Canada.

"I could wish the legal and social experts who put together this 1998 Act had read these words written 137 years ago," Sereny said.

Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd.

NOTE: Prizewinning biographer and investigative journalist Sereny paid the child-killer Mary Bell £5000 for her exclusive story.
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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