5 Disadvantages in home and family life
5.3 General family problems
Most of the families of the children in our sample can be said to have multiple problems relating both to internal family dynamics and to external factors. While the nature and extent of problems within the families vary widely, there are some recurring difficulties. As illustrated by the accounts presented in Box 5.1, below, these include substance misuse among members of the immediate and extended family; involvement of family members in criminal activity (around one-third of the children – 32% – have siblings and/or parents involved in criminality); violence and abuse within the home; and parental separation, which is often acrimonious. Very often, there is a generally chaotic home environment, within which adults fail – despite best efforts in some cases, and through wilful or unintentional neglect in others – to control the behaviour of children. It appears that factors such as these often combine to produce volatile family dynamics, and spirals of aggression and violence whose reach can extend far beyond the family home. It is notable also that 17 of the 200 children in the sample are known to be parents themselves or to be expectant parents. This latter number includes two girls – out of the total of 17 girls in the sample – who are pregnant.
37. The gender difference in the means is not statistically significant, and nor are the differences between the Asian and white and between the Asian and mixed race means. However, the black/white and black/mixed race differences are statistically significant.
Box 5.1: Family problems
Violence in the home and mental illness
Leila is a 15 year old girl who was sentenced for racially aggravated common assault. The offence was an unprovoked attack in the street on two girls, aged 12 and 13, whom Leila did not know. Prior to the offence she had been drinking cider with a group of friends, and had argued with her boyfriend.
Leila has a volatile relationship with both her parents, who are separated. She has spent periods of time living with her father, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He fails to impose boundaries on her behaviour, and offers little support. More recently, Leila has been living with her mother, who appears to treat her more consistently. Leila has a large scar on her forehead, which she states was caused by her brother punching her: he broke her nose and cut her forehead with a ring he was wearing.
Leila is currently around two months pregnant by a friend of her brother’s. She has stated that she wishes to keep the baby.
Offending by family members
Twelve year old Sean was sentenced for going equipped for stealing. He is the youngest in a family of eight siblings; five of his older siblings are in custody. His mother has recently served a short prison sentence for shoplifting, and is currently being prosecuted for several more such offences. She tends to side with her children when they are accused of committing crimes or anti-social behaviour. Sean has no contact with his birth father, who was abusive towards his mother; his step-father is serving a prison sentence and is due to be released next year.
The family is in the process of being re-housed following court action by the Council’s Anti- Social Behaviour Unit: local residents had made numerous complaints about threatening and abusive behaviour by all family members. The family have been subject to a Family
Intervention Programme – an anti-social behaviour initiative under which they have been offered re-housing in another area, along with intensive support, in return for signing a contract of good behaviour.
Marc, aged 16, was sentenced for an offence of common assault perpetrated against his ex- girlfriend.
There is a long history of domestic violence and abuse in Marc’s family. Alcohol misuse and maternal detachment are also features of the family dynamic. Marc’s relationship with his step- father is particularly troubled; the latter previously received a caution for assaulting Marc. Marc has no contact with his birth father or paternal extended family. His mother has twice
attempted suicide; one of these occasions was witnessed by Marc.
Marc spent several years in local authority care. He was in a large number of placements over this period, all of which failed because of his tendency to be physically and verbally abusive. At the age of 16 he left the care system and went to live with his uncle and grandmother, but was temporarily homeless at the time he committed the offence following an argument with his uncle.
It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all the families of the children in our sample have multiple, deep-seated problems. In a substantial number of cases, such as those described in Box 5.2, family life appears to be reasonably stable, and parents and others provide (or
attempt to provide) extensive support to the children who have offended – often working with the youth offending team and other local services in so doing. Loving and constructive relationships between the family members are reported in some of these cases. In others, it is reported that there is considerable conflict and tension within the family, but that the cause of this is largely the offending and other challenging behaviour of the child.