SERIOUS youth violence in the UK has been described as at epidemic levels. The media and policy-makers have spent hours discussing the causes and potential solutions, and what feel like hundreds of summits, panels, and focus groups have been held.
The current situation is at such a level because successive governments have failed to understand the nature of violent youth crime, the pernicious nature of trauma and poverty, and the gutting of youth and criminal justice services during the past ten years.
The Government is taking steps to address the issue and waking up to some of the causes of violent youth crime. Many of those at risk of serious violence have grown up and have been shaped by trauma. Adverse early-childhood (ACE) experiences have a significant adverse effect on children’s lives, increasing likelihood of violence by more than ten per cent.
The Safer Lives survey (2018) showed that more than 16 per cent of young people did not feel safe at home, and evidence from Public Health England in 2015 found that depression rates for gang-affiliated young people were twice as high as among those not affiliated to gangs, and 34 per cent of gang-affiliated young men had suicidal thoughts.
The Government is beginning to promote a public-health approach to tackling violent crime among young people, particularly knife crime. This means that, instead of simply using the criminal-justice system as a punitive deterrent for what is a relatively small number of perpetrators, the State provides a broader raft of services to a much larger group of people, to tackle risk factors such as trauma, as well as poverty and social and school exclusion. The aim is to prevent youth violence in the first place.
PAA knife-surrender bin outside a church in Birmingham
In April, the Government published its Serious Violence Strategy. It stated that Public Health England and the Police Crime Commissioners should work more closely, and it highlighted issues such as: the mental-health needs of gang associated children (or those at risk of grooming); school exclusion’s leading to criminality; the importance of strengthened family units; and the risk of exploitation within gangs, needing a safeguarding rather than criminal-justice approach.
This has led to the trialling of a trauma-informed policing and youth justice service in four areas. We are not yet at the stage of a national plan to implement a public-health approach, which will need a whole-system change as well as prolonged political backing, but the political will is growing.
The strategy acknowledges that government policy and services cannot address this issue alone, and calls for strengthened community partnerships. Many religious groups and secular youth organisations have been enrolled in helping to provide the holistic support that central government cannot.
IN LONDON, there is a desire for churches to rise to the challenge, but the scale of the problem can be daunting. During the past 12 months in the diocese of Southwark, there have been more than 4500 knife-crime offences, about 650 of which have caused injury to a young person under the age of 25. There are 26 C of E churches in “hotspot” wards. The latter are identified as having either more than 50 knife-crime offences or more than eight knife-crime injuries to a young person in the past 12 months.
Churches are not agencies for law-enforcement, and they do not have the resources or expertise to provide essential child and adolescent support or mental-health and trauma counselling. But they should be places of safety: the power of safe space cannot be underestimated.
Some churches in Southwark have extended the “safe-space” trope to beyond the walls, and have installed weapon-amnesty bins on their sites, often away from CCTV cameras, to allow a person to leave a weapon anonymously and unseen. The bin displays information about how people can turn their lives around, and whom to contact, should they wish to do so. And, if the bin is part of the Word for Weapons project, they can request a Bible. At the end of the year, the weapons from the bins are melted down and some are remoulded into medals, to be given out at awards ceremonies, truly bringing new meaning to beating swords into ploughshares.
Besides providing peaceful and safe spaces, parish churches can support families affected by violent crime, and be family to those who do not have one. A recurring cause of persistent youth violence is adverse childhood experience. While not being able to mitigate all adverse experiences, a parish church can provide a place of safety and love. Working alongside community partners, and trained youth workers, churches can be “violence interrupters”, and work with Christian charities such as Street Pastors and XLP who can provide invaluable support in our parishes and schools.
IN NOVEMBER, the dioceses of Southwark, London, and Chelmsford are to host a pan-London knife-crime meeting focusing on supporting parish priests and lay ministers. In the upcoming academic year, we are planning to provide a parish and school pack to support priests and head teachers, congregations, and schools in looking at how they can respond to serious youth violence in their localities. We are also looking at ways in which we can work with our schools at primary and secondary level to look at exclusion policies and how these may augment the alienation of young people at a vulnerable age.
Finally, we will be working with national, city-wide, and local community groups, families, and individuals where we are placed to find the best way to engage our young people and encourage them to live the lives that God has planned for them; for we recognise that they, like us, are children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.
Instead of responding to the spate of knife crimes with paralysing fear, the Church should act, as God’s love compels us, as salt and light in our communities.
Canon Rosemarie Mallett is director and Elizabeth Booker public-policy research officer of the Southwark diocese’s Department of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.