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23 September 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Yah boo to a Daily Mail myth

The offspring of poor, dysfunctional families have been dubbed "feral children" by the right-wing pr

By Johann Hari

Very quickly, a new way has sprung up of talking and thinking about the most disadvantaged kids in Britain. We have begun to dub them “feral children”, a term that originally referred to young people who had been quite literally raised by animals in the wilderness. In 1997, the ultra-conservative writer Peter Hitchens began to speak of “packs of feral children roaming our streets”, and the phrase captured the public (or at least the tabloid) imagination.

This language has now spread far beyond the usual reactionary circles. Jonathan Miller, the well-known liberal theatre director, recently raged against “feral children” who had sprayed graffiti on the houses in his street, and the term is now used routinely in radio news reports and – most significantly – in everyday conversation.

Implicit within this term is a right-wing analysis of a phenomenon. “This is not simply a crime wave,” explains the Daily Mail journalist Melanie Phillips. “It is something much more fundamental: a deep fracture in the basic socialisation of children . . .” She argues that “the cause is nothing less than a collapse of adult authority and, particularly, family responsibility at all levels”. Peter Hitchens is, characteristically, even more blunt: “Above all, the sexual revolution, the permissive society and the abolition of marriage . . . have created this terrifying generation of murderous, morally blank wolf-children, fatherless, undisciplined, indulged one minute then brutalised the next.” These thinkers’ solutions are straightforward: restore the 1950s model of the nuclear family, force wayward parents to take charge of their kids and punish them if they fail. And, in Hitchens’s words, “lock up more of these thugs, and really punish them”.

The government seems passively to be accepting much of the Daily Mail line. David Blunkett has expressed a desire to “force parents to take responsibility for their kids”, by withholding benefits for the parents of persistent offenders. This implicitly accepts the Phillips view that “feral children” are a cultural and not an economic problem. Yet if poverty rather than bad parenting were the issue, further impoverishing the parents would only exacerbate the problem. Similarly, the much-vaunted but little-used curfews on under-16s are predicated on the idea that forcing the kids back into the bosom of their family will discipline them.

Yet in Southwark, one of the poorest boroughs of London, an extraordinary charity is serving as a practical laboratory for the development of a different approach to the problem. Kids’ Company is crafting and testing on the ground a centre-left analysis of this phenomenon which government ministers would be well advised to check out (as Prince Harry did earlier this month).

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Camila Batmanghelidjh founded the charity six years ago, after her work in social services showed her that “too many kids were falling through the cracks. Our caring services had, somewhere along the line, stopped caring, and nobody was looking at the whole child any more. I would see illiterate kids being sent to housing offices where they would have to fill in five forms on their own. So, of course, they became homeless. I could see that what was needed was a one-stop shop for kids to hang out and have all their needs met.”

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So she persuaded Railtrack to give her a series of railway arches and disused buildings, rent-free. Now it is a remarkable hub of activity. Underneath one arch, kids are being taught DJing skills; in another, they are fed three regular meals a day, something that their parents (90 per cent of whom, Batmanghelidjh estimates, are drug addicts) are unable to provide; underneath a third, they are being helped with their benefit claims; in yet another, kids permanently excluded from school and left to rot by their local education authority are being tutored.

Fidel, an 18-year-old black lad, has been coming here for six years. He explains what it has meant to him: “Before I came here, I would just, you know, go robbing and that. I had just nothing to do, ever. And the people here . . . it was somewhere to go where you ain’t causing trouble. This is one of the first places I ever came where adults spoke to me without shouting. . . . They helped me get my qualifications, they came with me to enrol in college, they would talk to my tutors and see if I had any problems and talk it through with me. It’s changed my life, this place.”

Every kid in the arches had a story like this to tell. Lauren, 17, was led here by her younger brothers. “It’s like home to me. I stopped going to school when I was 11 – it was just too much and my parents were telling me not to go. My dad was in and out of prison and my mum was smoking [crack] all the time.”

The Daily Mail solution – force families to take responsibility – would not have worked for any of the kids I spoke to. Their problem was the nuclear family, and the lethal fallout from it. “I needed space away from my family. And I could tell the people here anything. They sorted out foster care for me and my brothers.”

Kids’ Company’s analysis shares some aspects of the Mail‘s view. There clearly is a problem with parenting. “In all these years, we’ve had about 500 kids coming here regularly, and I’ve probably only met about 20 parents, and half of them were abusive,” says Batmanghelidjh. “Many of these kids are effectively unparented.”

But strengthening the nuclear family is often not going to help these children: the family in many cases is the wound and not the bandage. A high proportion of them have been sexually abused. While there, I am shown one poem written by a nine-year-old girl who is a regular visitor to the arches. It is too disturbing to be printed here. It is enough to say that she speaks of the “devils” that take over her father, causing him to “kick me between the legs” and sexually assault her.

The charity believes that poverty is plainly a factor in the formation of such children. “These kids are desperately poor,” explains Batmanghelidjh. “It’s not like they want much. They only ever have one pair or trainers, not five. But it’s not unreasonable for them to want that one pair. Too often, they can’t get even that.” Eight of the children eating lunch there explained that they would otherwise have gone hungry.

Another key problem is the shrinking amount of public space. Children who would once have played in parks, fields or even on their street now have nowhere to go. There isn’t even a local shopping centre with an open space. “The thing that gets you into trouble most,” explains Andre, one of the lads hanging around the arches, “is boredom. It’s just so boring. There is literally nothing here.”

For poor kids, the area is desolate. No leisure centre, one scabby little park, no arcades, nothing. Middle-class parents deal with the absence of public play-space for their children through expensive hobbies and clubs, by buying houses with big gardens, or – increasingly – drugging their kids with Ritalin. These are not options available to poor parents.

Hillary Clinton wrote a book called It Takes a Village . . . (the title comes from the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”). Kids’ Company is, in effect, reconstituting the village in an urban context. “These children can’t be raised by parents who can’t cope, and they can’t be raised by an impersonal and remote government machine,” Batmanghelidjh says. Instead, they can be helped by networks of social entrepreneurs who identify the needs of children, and utilise diverse government agencies and benefits to deliver them.

The government could move away from homogenised and inefficient social services, run on the 1940s model from Whitehall, and towards bottom-up social provision led by groups like this. While the government pays lip-service to the idea, its one payment to Kids’ Company so far has come tied to its own pre-set “targets”. Yet, as Kids’ Company points out, ministers cannot say on the one hand that they want to use the services of social entrepreneurs, and on the other tell those entrepreneurs what to do. It defeats the point. Indeed, this charity represents precisely the kind of social enterprise that the New Statesman‘s Upstarts awards have long trumpeted: a departure from monolithic public services towards responsive, diverse networks.

Yet – in a horribly apt example of how we treat these “feral children” throughout our society – Kids’ Company is not being lauded by its local council or by its local MP, Harriet Harman. In fact, it is being shut down by populist Labour councillors who have whipped up fear among the local residents. They complain that it attracts “the wrong type of kids” to the area, although the vast majority of children using the arches live within ten minutes’ walking distance. They say it causes crime – yet the local crime rates are lower now than before Kids’ Company arrived.

It would seem this is our approach across Britain: we look at poor children with fear and contempt. So long as they are swept off my doorstep, I’m fine. And they had better keep out of my way – as I hurry along to buy another padlock for the front door.