Essay

“He’s your problem now.”

Details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved. No one person is responsible. No single organisation bares the blame. These words are opinion. View disclaimer located on the home page. This article is protected by restrict CRCC. No part may be reproduced under any circumstance without prior written consent for any use commercial or otherwise.

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“November Delta Three Three, Control.”

“November Delta Three Three to Control; Go ahead?”

“November Delta, the description given is a white male, five foot and seven inches, approximately 10 stones. Pale complexion with sandy medium length hair. A scar along the bottom lip to the left side. Male is wearing a grey tracksuit top with Adidas on the arm. Grey tracksuit pants and wearing blue Nike trainers. Is known for being aggressive and is believed to be armed.”

“November Delta Three Three, all received.”

It’s not uncommon to hear descriptions like this throughout the course of your duties as a police officer. The details are all subject to change of course but the line is always the same.

What does it mean that someone is armed?
Does the person have a knife? A firearm?
A stick?
Will they actually use it or is it all bravado?
Why are they aggressive?
Do they yell and shout or are they liable to fight you?

You wonder what’s brought them to this moment in their life. Being hunted down by police.

If you were the officer that received this radio transmission, what picture forms of the person in your head right now? Do they look big and scary? Do they have a Burberry cap on their head and lots of cheap jewellery?

Now, the fact is that the male above is only fifteen years old. He’s absconded from his care facility in Belfast. He left through the unlocked front door after having a verbal altercation with one of the care staff whom he believes gave him a bit of lip and he grabbed a set of butter knives from the kitchen canteen tray during supper time and then bolted for the door.

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The staff immediately went after him, a social worker made a leap for him and tried to pull him down by the legs in a rugby tackle. She fails to do so… on this occasion, for she has unfortunately been here before. The boy wriggles free and keeps going, makes it to the door, and disappears into the night.

The alarms beep to hammer home to the staff that the door is open and then it slams shut loudly in the wind.

Staff immediately get into their cars and start looking for the boy, Darren; everyone else is carted off to bed. It wasn’t unusual for someone to have a ‘bit of a barney’ but tonight he’d been gone for two hours and the weather was horrible. They had no choice but to call the police.

I’ve had previous dealings with Darren. He likes me. I was someone who looked him the eye when he wanted to speak. I’d met him six times over the last 16 months. When the radio call came through to me, I knew where to go to find Darren.

I took the old gun rifle coloured Tangi and drove to Roselawn Cemetary. On the way I used the old UHF radio to speak directly to Belfast Council and asked them to liaise with me at Roselawn to open the gates and let the Landrover inside.

About fifteen minutes later I arrived to find the gates already open and the tiny blue green BCC Nissan sitting waiting patiently. I took the truck round towards the north-west corner of the grounds and hopped out just past the lake.

With one of those square Phillips torches that can light up an airport I headed into the forest and after a moment or two of sloshing through the mud I found a soaking wet Darren, his clothes hanging off him from the weight of the water, sitting on a downed tree and wasting his time with a Silk Cut. I sat down next to him and put my arm around his shoulders, offering words of wisdom in my usual style, “Stop actin’ the bollix will ye? It’s pouring down.”

We sat for about 15 minutes, shielded shittily from the rain, and talked to each other about what was up. Darren won’t have excuses made for him by me but he’s a lad who had a very difficult time in his life at that moment. I knew the circumstances. I spoke to him and pointed out where the future lay if he kept going down this path.

I escorted him into the Landrover and took him back home. It was one of the last times I ever saw Darren until about 2 years ago when I ran into him with his own kids in Millisle. It took me a moment or two to recognise him but he recognised me.

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This is how the typical member of the public believes the whole care home situation acts. We have troubled children with tragic lives who just need a cuddle and some security to be ‘normal’ and ‘settled’. It isn’t. It never was and it never will be.

A recent article in the Belfast Telegraph (read here) reports on the shocking number of children that go missing from care homes every day in Northern Ireland. Now before I propose my explanation behind this, allow me to lay down some ground work about why some things are how they are.

You see sadly, the Health & Social Care (Northern Ireland) or HSCNI, the equivalent of the NHS in Northern Ireland has developed a bizarre culture of fear & blame within its ranks that is crippling the ability of those who work at the coalface in Child And Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to provide a safe and effective delivery platform.

In 2007 a one-year-old boy called Peter Connelly made headlines the world over after suffering horrific injuries conducive of a sustained campaign of violent abuse. He’s known as ‘Baby P’ to most people. Baby P’s case began a witch hunt to find blame and ‘justice’ for the horrible abuse the child had suffered and so the guns were turned towards the local Social Services.

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The media even went as far as to suggest that heads of department and indeed Chief Officers within the social services bore a criminal liability for the case. The public accepted this argument, the vilification began and the United Kingdom Government did what it does best; grossly overreact to a tragedy to make it look like it had a grip on things.

You see… what happened was a massive closing of the ranks. A severe clamp down on activities that might be considered in anyway unacceptable, perhaps a bit strange or even inappropriate. Like hugging children. Modern Child Protection workshops will discourage adults, especially adult males, from hugging children.

It wasn’t so much, “doing something to solve the problems,” and much more a case of, “being seen to do something to solve the problems.”

I once posed a question to colleagues of mine about a mother bringing her four-year-old daughter into the shower with her to bathe her. I then posed the same question about the father and I was met with scrunched faces and uhhs and hmms. These were professional women involved in direct Child Protection issues who had automatically associated a risk, sexual or otherwise, where none realistically could be applied.

Combining these two rises in our modern culture we get what’s sometimes called the ‘fear culture’, ‘blame culture’ or the ubiquitous ‘litigious society’ that is constantly trying to apportion corporate responsibility for everything that happens. Nothing can just be. Everything must have an origin and a head must always be available to roll.

Inevitably, this brings us back to the original point about missing children. This culture has found itself spreading throughout HSCNI and especially in CAMHS where they deliver ‘coal face’ services through children’s homes. Staff are told not to engage.

Children are very much more difficult to deal with today than ever before. This is because of the various protection workshops, the media, the resultant fallout and the numerous bodies that become involved.

Imagine if your fourteen-year-old child said to you, “Fuck off you cunt,” then spat in your face and tried to throw an ashtray off the side of your head, would you restrain them? Would you want police to restrain them? Would you expect the care workers to restrain that child? Would you ground them?

Frankly, Belfast has some absolutely atrocious wee ballsacks masquerading as ‘children’ in its care at the moment. Yes, they have their problems. Yes, they have tragic stories. But it’s different now. Social media exists, knowledge exists and access to drugs for £1 is 10 minutes away. The kids go off and get wired up and come back, 11 stones of fucked-up legal-high riddled angry young man with nothing to gain and nothing to lose as far as he’s concerned and he takes it out on the staff.

A young man who was in the press recently for incidents around Colin Glen is so well known to police for violence that he would actively fight police on contact. He would openly boast about his injuries to friends. We’re talking about real fist fights. He could throw a lethal punch and take one just as much. But he’s a ‘child’… isn’t he? He was 16 and 17. He wasn’t in care nor did he have a difficult childhood. His mother is a lovely person and his younger brother too, if he keeps his head straight, he won’t turn out to be such a prick either.

Yet if we deployed the Taser onto this lad, it would be reported as, “CHILD TASED BY POLICE DURING INCIDENT IN NORTH BELFAST” The furore on Twitter and Facebook would be outrageous. Yet if only you knew how toxic and aggravating some of these ‘children’ were. And they get absolutely no support. The PSNI have to pick the pieces up constantly from these young people with terrible drug problems.

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Back to the story about Darren, a child leaving a care home would be the utmost concern of all the staff. The welfare of the child is, of course, paramount. These days though, either through laziness or through a fear of retribution, staff call 999 and report the child missing from the care home before they’ve even left the property grounds.

There is no minimum period, as TV would have you believe. Someone is considered ‘missing’ as soon as they are reported as such. Because the child is under eighteen years of age they are an immediate priority for all crews.

Traffic collisions are abandoned, burglaries ignored and assaults unable to be responded to because we’ve been out looking for missing children. Children who aren’t actually missing. You see I don’t think I’ve ever had an actual child who was legitimately missing in my entire career; genuine real kidnap or lost children in Northern Ireland is incredibly rare. The gates aren’t locked. The doors aren’t locked. The staff will never stop them from leaving the care home. They will threaten to dock their ‘privileges’ and that’s it. That is all they can do.

Staff are forbidden to intervene. They’re not to swear. They’re never to restrain unless absolutely necessary and even then minimise it as much as possible. They must not grab, cajole or push. They must not act like a parent and they certainly cannot act like a warder. They can’t support a child with a hug and they can’t hold a child back from attacking someone without a fear of retribution ringing in their ears.

I don’t blame the staff. Mostly. I blame the HSCNI. The hospitals are exactly the same. If you leave the hospital without telling someone, say perhaps you’re fed up waiting for 3 hours in A&E and you wander off, you’re reported as missing. Instead of the hospital attempting to contact you, look for you or even contact any of your next of kin details which you provided, they immediately phone the police.

Abuse of care staff is unacceptable but zero tolerance policies and a refusal to control the situation themselves results in pissed off patients waiting 6 hours in agony having police called on them to remove them from the premises. The hospitals employ their own security and often forget to use them. If you had any idea the number of man hours lost to sitting in hospitals you would be flabbergasted.

There’s an absolutely superb example of this in the book Police, Arrests & Suspects: The True Story of a Front Line Officer by John Donoghue who has very kindly given me permission to stick it up here in all its glory. It shows, very clearly, the ‘cover all bases to a fault’ culture I am trying to describe. The context being that during a reconnaissance mission for serious crime his call sign is diverted for a ridiculous reason.

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Baffling.

If a child leaves a care home to go meet up with some mates and they’re supposed to be ‘grounded’ by staff then they’re immediately reported as missing. They know the child will return home to the bed later that evening, they might even keep curfew, but they phone the police… because it’s what they have to do. They need to cover themselves, else – should something go wrong – they are the designated head-to-roll.

They either use us as a weapon to punish the kids and it absolutely destroys our working relationship with the child for life. The outrageous number of policing man hours lost to ‘missing children’ is absolutely the real story here.

Someone needs to ask the real questions,

“How many people under the age of 18 declared as missing are found within 6 hours?”

“How many of those who fall into the category of the previous question have been declared missing previously?”

“How many people under the age of 18 declared as missing have been missing for a period of three months or more?”

 

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Some children will go missing multiple times in one day. That’s piss poor staff control. That’s shit policies. That’s shit working practice. But we, the police, have to run around and pick up after everyone’s fuck ups. As if we are somehow immune to the same level of prosecution and scrutiny.

It’s been a long time since I met a CAMHS social worker who cared about the children more than their pension. I understand that the mortgage has to be paid but maybe you should pick another job through which to pay it.

We have a care system in Northern Ireland, entirely the responsibility of HSCNI, that is so disintegrated, so broken and entirely out of line with CAMHS that it shits out the same kind of broken and damaged children every single year who have no support after leaving care and end up being picked up by the police time and again.

Now, young people are killing themselves at an alarming pace. The lack of CAMHS and of compassion within the system is producing significantly more damaged children who have nothing to lose or gain.

The police have increasingly had to take on this role because hospitals, doctors, mental health teams, social workers and care homes, and of course the politicians and civil servants who have created this prevailing culture, would rather not get their hands dirty. We’re now at the point where the police cannot continue to pick these pieces up. HSCNI must step up to the plate and protect its staff and the children under its care.

It must put forward a realistic policy to engage children appropriately without patronising them or acting like every gesture is a sign of assault, or that children are incapable of intelligence and independence. This behaviour crushes the spirit of its workers.

It must be seen to do more, and actually do more. It is unacceptable for police officers to attend a missing person at a hospital or care home only to find it is not at all as reported and have staff tell us, “He’s your problem now.” Sooner or later the police won’t be able to pick up the pieces anymore. And that’s when the true reality of how bad it’s got will come to light.

That of course isn’t to say it’s down to an individual but it’s down to the culture that prevails. We see it in the police more often. It’s not just HSCNI it’s many other agencies and organisations too that work to protect from the top down. People have lost sight of what matters, it’s the people, not the targets.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Don


Thanks to Kris Nixon (@BelfastBarman) for his help editing the story. He’s my bae.

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Many thanks to John for permission to reproduce his story. Go buy his book it’s actually funny and insightful for the public to see the human side of policing. http://amzn.eu/iWAuRRR

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3 thoughts on ““He’s your problem now.”

  1. Hello,

    An interesting comment and a perspective that is common amongst many police I meet. I think the criticisms of the HSCNI would be shared by most who work for them. What is probably worth remembering is that there is a very specific written protocol for children from residential care being reported missing to the PSNI and this is jointly agreed with police managers as much as HSCNI ones. Most front line police I meet have never even heard of it, let alone read it.

    You have got the back covering culture down to a tee. Its grim and self serving. But you (understandably) overplay the institutional response (e.g. reporting missing) and confuse that with a lack of hard work and skill that many staff put in day in day out. As with all things police, you get the call when things go pear-shaped. More often than that the hard work and resilience of staff leads to more positive outcomes for young people.

    I’m genuinely shocked that you say that it has been a longtime since you met a worker who cares. Are there workers who are burnt out/not good at their jobs? Of course. But in my experience this is a minority. I’m also a bit disturbed that you talk about staff using the police to ‘punish’ the children. That’s not practice I see and I recommend that you make a formal complaint if you see this. Never acceptable.

    I enjoyed your questions about the Bel Tel atricle. I had the same ones myself. Seems like they deliberately tried to not understand a complex area (shocker). I think a key point that you have underplayed is the reason why children are reported so quickly. It is not just because staff can’t/won’t look for them. As I’m sure you know – the vast majority of these children usually have a high risk of self-harm, drug missuse and they are vulnerable to be preyed on by bad adults out there. The fact that they arr often return unharmed is more about luck than anything else. If your child was that vulnerable would you want absolutely everything done to ensure they were safe?

    On leaving care: Our care leaving services are not comprihensive enough, but to suggest they are not there is a bit misleading. All children who leave care have a statutory right to aftercare support. Many of those with a difficult relationship with social services choose not to avail of this – and as adults they have the right to make that choice.

    I enjoyed the read. Thanks.

    P.s. for information. CAMHS run one inpatient mental health facility in Belfast. Every other children’s home is run by social services (or more rarely a third sector agency). Both part of HSCNI.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reply. I love a bit of engagement me. While I understand that there is a set protocol and classification system for missing persons the fact is in most cases the children are AWOL only and it’s their being Under 18 and in institutionalised residential care that results in their being classified as high risk missing which is wasteful and stupid.

      Like

  2. I have deal with the psni on three occasions in mental health issues including absconding and tracking down a young person, my daughter.. Outstanding on each occasion and without doubt saved life. I don’t even know their names to thank them but it is appreciated and because of three different crews my daughter is alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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