Every newspaper, every current affairs television programme has been bursting with social comment on the recent riots. Anyone with an agenda, whether that be anti-cuts or anti-single mothers, wants to hang their thesis neatly on the peg marked ‘Riots – the Cause’ and to show us all that they were right all along and if only we’d listened earlier, none of this would have happened. But sometimes if a theory doesn’t feel right, then it is worth thinking about further. And it just doesn’t feel right that young people were burning down homes and businesses because of the forthcoming withdrawal of the Educational Maintainance Allowance. And it feels crass, lazy and cruel to blame a group who already have the rough end of things; single mothers (who exist only by virtue of absent fathers).
Tony Blair’s article in the Observer on 21 August was a refreshing take on it all. There was a lack of sweeping statements, political games and axe grinding. He put aside for a moment those who were carried along in a ‘life-changing mistake’ which left him able to shine a light on those for whom this behaviour fits into a more general pattern, those who ‘are from families that are profoundly dysfuntional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society’. Those of us who have adopted or fostered from within the UK are likely to have taken on children from these ‘profoundly dysfunctional’ families and will have more idea than most what that means.
For a child unlucky enough to be born into a profoundly dysfunctional family it will find little nurture when it is at it’s most vulnerable and during the most important period of it’s brain development. As other babies develop safely with the experience that carers are constantly available to provide food, comfort and soothing words, these children learn early on that no one else is to be trusted to take care of their needs. They will frequently experience hunger, fear and loneliness and some will be physically and mentally abused. Their primary lessons are firstly that no one else can be relied upon so they must take control of their own needs and secondly that they are worthless and to blame for their misfortune. These lessons become hard-wired into their brains and I can promise you, are extremely difficult to unstick. They grow up fighting to retain control and they see and hear in the world around them only those things which match with their appalling view of themselves. They feel doomed to failure and will try hard to live down to this pre-conception. They also miss out on one important lesson that the more fortunate amongst us learn early on from our loving carers; empathy. Now picture those strutting, smirking young people, breaking into shops, destroying livelihoods, emerging from the youth courts full of bravado, smiling and laughing. Maybe some of them are living out the life that was laid out for them in their first few months of life as they sat in dirty nappies, having given up crying for food and comfort: you will never be the boss of me because nothing you can do will make me feel worse about myself than I do already.
We watch the film footage of the rioters and looters with anger surging up inside us, we want to form a quick opinion, it feels better, temporarily, to blame, to label, the word ‘scum’ trips off the tongue. But we must reach for the better part of ourselves, make the effort to really, deeply understand and to see that at least some of these young people are the damaged products of these ‘profoundly dysfunctional’ families.
As the adoptive parent of two children who were born into such circumstances, but who were removed at a young age, I am able to provide a small insight into the damage that can be done to small children below the age of two. It is profound, long-lasting, destructive and almost over-whelming, for our family of four. We live with the fallout of their terrible early experiences day in and day out. And yet society at large shows little understanding and provides almost no support. So I applaud Tony Blair because he has hit the nail on the head and he understands broadly what the approach should be, ‘to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage’. But when the state does intervene, it must do so properly and for the long term. It must educate us all on the reasons why it is intervening and the benefits to society of doing so. And it must not forget those of us who are trying to raise these children for it is a difficult and often lonely job.
Read Tony Blair’s article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/20/tony-blair-riots-crime-family/print