In safeguarding, we are facing major confusion about children who are both victims and either perpetrators of abuse or commit criminal offences. These are complex and emotionally difficult issues. Though our thinking has moved on since 1993 when the press publicly denigrated the child killers of Jamie Bulger as ‘monsters’, it is still a work in progress. We are beginning to understand that these were children enacting their own abuse in the most terrible manner. But this understanding is not universal and even professionals working with child perpetrators of abuse and crime struggle with it. These issues, alongside the misunderstandings relating to grooming and radicalisation, are highlighted by the case of Shamima Begum, who wishes to return from Syria to bring up her child in the UK.Begum was 15 when she left the UK to join ISIS. She was under 18 and therefore a child and entitled to protection and support under child protection law. She was radicalised. We need to remember that radicalisation and grooming are similar processes. They are based in deception, coercion, and manipulation to change a child’s beliefs, behaviour and sense of self-worth. Once the child is drawn in, they are abused and exploited.
Begum was married within days of her arrival in Syria, has been pregnant more or less continually during her time there. She has watched 2 of her children die. Now pregnant with the third she wants to come home. If we change the story to an economically deprived town in the North of England, to a white girl groomed by a gang of older men, sexually abused, trafficked across the country who now is pregnant and wants to escape, few would question her right to support. Even if the child had committed criminal offences- drug trafficking, soliciting or criminal damage- the abuse they had suffered would be taken into account.
Yet for Begum, Savid Javid and many members of the media can only see the fact she went to Syria. They see this as a free choice. To echo the Serious Case Review into CSE in Rochdale ‘a lifestyle choice’. The girls abused in Rochdale were not making lifestyle choices. They were not able to. They were children. They were groomed, exploited, and abused. So were the girls who left Bethnal Green to go to Syria.
We have to question how far the response to Begum and her colleagues is based in racism and fear. I struggle to understand how one closely watched 19 year old under police investigation can be a threat to British national security. Yet, I can see how she has become a focus of fear for what she represents – someone who was radicalised and rejected British values. Her current treatment can only confirm that rejection and reinforce its message for others like her. We failed her when she was radicalised and are now making the radicalisation of others like her so much easier by allowing the media to share rants about disloyalty to ‘our flag’ (BBC) and even the more measured responses which disregard and minimise how and why Begum ended up where she is. If we respond with humanity, we make that process of the radicalisation of others in the future more difficult. However, the knee-jerk racism and fear of politicians, the press and Twitter fuels and reinforces the process of radicalisation.
But there is a further element here, reflected in the current confusion about the police approach to child criminal exploitation, including county lines. These are children who have been groomed, exploited and committed a crime, in this case largely drug related. How should we respond to them? Are they exploited children or are they criminals? We struggled to understand that they can be both. The law states that a child is anyone under the age of 18 and they are entitled to legal protection under that law. The Children Act 1989 reminds us, ‘The welfare of the child is paramount’. We need to apply this principal to the protection of all children. We need to see those under 18 as children first and if need be criminals second. We need to remember that the reason under 18s are legally regarded as children is because they lack the decision making abilities of adults. To criminalise children for being abused and exploited by adults cannot be right.
If we are acknowledging the British value of the rule of law, we need to apply that law fairly and universally. The principle of ‘the welfare of the child is paramount’ needs to be applied to all children who are British citizens, including those who are radicalised, groomed, criminally or sexually exploited, both in the UK and elsewhere. Neither Shamina Begum or her unborn child are a threat to national security. They like the child victims of sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Rotherham, Derby and elsewhere and the children forced through county lines to carry drugs across the UK are victims of child abuse and entitled to protection first and then for any crime to be considered in light of an understanding of that abuse.