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Can you put a price on losing our youth?

EPIDEMIC: Forensic officers investigate a crime scene

IT’S A SAD state of affairs when the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police Commissioner cannot agree whether there is a correlation between reduced police funding and knife crime.

I don’t think you have to be an expert to see a correlation – only a reality check and a modicum of compassion is needed.

As the cloud of Brexit hangs immovably over the country, consuming the headspace of politicians and dividing society, it continues to overshadow a range of critical domestic issues – most prominently knife crime.

PICTURED: Wayne Reid

There has been lots of commentary, debate and rhetoric – but no swift action. Why? Because sadly, meaningful compassion is lacking.

Some people will roll their eyes at this, but that merely substantiates my point. How did things get this bad? Why are more (black) young people carrying or using knives? And, say observers, how can we get back to the ‘good old days’?

Well, the ‘good old days’ are gone. At least for the foreseeable future.

The reality is that organised gangs are increasingly involving young people to carry out their criminal activities. These gangs are exploiting the fact their young recruits are more likely to be cautioned or given community orders – instead of imprisonment.

I’ve previously worked in criminal and youth justice, with a range of offenders, so feel I can state with some authority that there needs to be a radical overhaul of the criminal and youth justice system.

I speak from professional experience when I say I’m not convinced by the prevention, management or rehabilitation of offenders and neither are many frontline practitioners.

I recently spoke on BBC radio about the ongoing and visible ‘divorce’ of criminal justice from social work.

Examples include: the splintering of the Probation Services and youth offending teams from children’s services; the specialisation of youth justice education; the lack of youth justice content in social work training and the purely punitive impact of ‘rehabilitation’ programmes – to name just a few.

This shortsighted approach is fundamentally flawed and damaging for everyone. Criminal justice (in its broadest sense – with adults and young people) and social work are intrinsically linked. We need to rekindle the relationship between criminal justice, social work and community cohesion to make our streets safer for everybody.

POLICE RESPONSE: Victoria Atkins joins an officer from the Metropolitan Police searching for knives in Lewisham, south London

The BASW England Criminal Justice Policy, Practice & Education Group is active in re-building the bridges between social work and criminal justice. Please contact me if you are interested in joining the group.

The media portrays a two-dimensional view of knife crime and wrongly polarises it into ‘offenders’ and ‘victims’, when the reality is far more complex and multi-dimensional than this. Issues such as: the lack of policing; the impact of austerity; decimated community resources; gang conflict; chaotic family lives, unemployment, substance misuse and school exclusion are all glossed over when an incident occurs.

These are often reported in the media as if they don’t matter when a young person gets stabbed or stabs someone.

Every victim and offender are products of their environment and this needs to be more widely recognised. In some cases, both offenders and victims are known to children’s services, youth offending teams or other local services.

Let’s give these workers the education, time and resources to tackle this issue effectively.

Many young people are increasingly rejected by the education system and placed in part-time alternative education provisions – which are no substitute for proper full-time education.

This situation isolates them – heightening their vulnerability to various forms of exploitation. Safe spaces where children and young people once congregated and socialised have disappeared, making it easier for them to be exploited by sophisticated criminals.

How can these socio-economic factors not require combined criminal justice and social work input?

As recently reported by Leroy Logan in The Guardian, “until they feel safe, young people will risk their lives by carrying knives.” It’s well known that the media (quite blatantly) perpetuates negative racial stereotypes of young black men. The media could do more to spotlight the real-life factors that contribute to youth violence and knife crime, such as: slashed local authority funding; organised crime; nonexistent community resources and social media trends.

Instead, young black men are demonised (in some cases even when they are victims).

Given the Brexit and ‘hostile environment’ ‘mood mix’ – this sadly creates further racial tensions, divides communities and marginalises disenfranchised youths further.

SPLIT: Brexit continues to divide people across the capital and the nation

We also have to question why the lives of black young men have less value.

If the majority of knife crime victims were white, would the government response have been this slow?

It’s unhelpful for youth violence to be framed as a ‘black problem’, as this encourages ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘blame culture’.

Actually, this is a societal problem and we need a multilayered strategy with sufficient funding to tackle it – not racial profiling and finger pointing.

The media have a moral duty to conduct thorough investigative journalism which is insightful and unbiased on such serious issues.

More can be done to educate the public about the wider context of knife crime and highlight counter-narratives.

It’s so much deeper than “bored feral black youths killing each other for kicks”.

This is about exploitation, self-defence and limited life prospects.

Why can’t positive black role models be given more of the limelight? Such as the 56 Men project which challenges the pervasive stereotyping of black men wearing hoodies. Or the artist/historian Akala, whose wide-ranging work on black culture is highly acclaimed.

It’s stating the obvious, but nonetheless, it is essential to state: not all black men wield knives.

Some of us are victims and some of us are intellectuals!

As social workers, it’s important we critically analyse the influence and impact of biased media coverage of youth violence. Otherwise, our professional values and ethics will be gradually eroded and diminish our practice. Social work is fundamentally about relationships. Therefore, it’s helpful to identify resources that provide practical ways of working with young people involved or affected by youth violence.

These resources exist, but they require practitioners to be proactive in accessing them due to the ‘divorce’.

Among them is Craig Pinkney, a prominent speaker on youth violence (and related issues) who has delivered fantastic presentations at BASW England events to educate members on the various socio-economic factors enticing young people towards carrying knives. He also advises practitioners on how to intervene effectively.

TACKLING YOUTH VIOLENCE: Craig Pinkey is passionate about guiding young people through life

We are way beyond quick fixes here. Additional funding or targeted ‘stop and search’ alone will not eradicate knife crime. We need to utilise youth workers and reformed gang members from troubled communities to work with the relevant authorities to reconnect with young people and promote their citizenship.

We now have a generation of young people who wouldn’t know how to behave in a youth club or comply with employment or training expectations.

We need to ensure we are educating and providing people with the basic skills to contribute to society – otherwise it is clear they may pose a danger.

Scared young men will rehearse their fears sometimes in clumsy and inarticulate ways.

Social work cannot fix this problem alone, but it can be part of the solution.

Youth violence has become a national emergency that needs to be treated with the same sense of seriousness and urgency as terrorism – not downplayed as a ‘black problem’ that can be swept under the carpet.

Wayne Reid is a professional officer for BASW (British Association of Social Workers) England

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