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A Childhood in Care and an Adult Life in Prison

Understanding the problems of delinquent identification and violence.

Key points

  • The outcomes for children in long-term care are significantly worse than for children in the general population.
  • Delinquent identification offers a 'solution' to children who are looking for masculine role models but mistrust authority figures.

It may seem self-evident that prolonged time in care as a child adversely affects one’s life chances: inadequate parenting, disrupted schooling, poorly-paid staff who are overworked and undervalued, negative peer influences, and so on, are all likely to play a part. The scale of the problem as a social rather than psychological issue is clear in the statistics:

  • 60% of children in care have emotional, behavioural and educational difficulties; approximately 50% have substance misuse problems requiring help.
  • Only 12% of children in care achieve good grades in national exams compared to 52% of children more generally.
  • About 1% of the general population has a criminal conviction; contrast this with the 20% of adults who were in a children’s home as a child who acquire a conviction by the age of 15.

Let us be clear about one thing though: Children are potentially resilient, and for those who have a good start in life, and whose placement in care is relatively short and stable – perhaps during a period of adverse family circumstances – the outcomes are good.

James Lee/Unsplash
Source: James Lee/Unsplash

Care as a psychological issue

However, the child in long-term care — for whom early attachments were fragile at best — struggles to make sense of his situation. He (and I am talking largely about boys here) is biologically programmed to cling to the belief that his parents love him and will therefore protect him, and yet he finds himself apparently rejected and abandoned. Those who now look after him are called carers, but they do not seem to care for him, as they are erratic in their availability, indifferent to his inner turmoil, and sometimes brutal in their response when he expresses his confusion or rage. This tension in the boy’s attachments to those meant to nurture him is sometimes resolved by the process of delinquent identification.

Delinquent identification

Delinquent identification is a term that refers to the process by which a boy rejects mainstream socially-valued masculine ideals in favour of a masculine identity based on an alternative antisocial culture of behaviour and values. For the boy in long-term care, this means the rejection of adults as reliable and trustworthy role models in favour of the intensely close bonds with peers forged by coming together to engage in exciting antisocial activity.

David's story

David’s story brings this idea to life. Having spent much of his adult life in prison for an offence of murder committed when he was aged 18, David came late to understanding the process of delinquent identification. Neglected as a child by his mother who was a drug addict, he was taken into care when his behaviour at school began to deteriorate. He rejected several foster families in the belief that his mother would come to collect him one day soon, a rose-tinted, long-lasting hope that she inadvertently fuelled by writing him a letter expressing her intention to do so, although she was far too fragile to fulfil this promise. In the children’s home, he felt humiliated by the care staff’s taunting when he wet the bed and so he rejected them all as ‘fakes’. He described vividly the process by which he was drawn to the slightly older boys in the children’s home, as ‘everything a man should be’, and how proud he was when he was chosen to deliver cannabis or accompany them in a stolen car. His feelings of vulnerability and self-doubt melted away as the bond with his peers offered his life meaning.

For David, the pathway into violence was rapid and predictable: a feeling of invincibility was enhanced by his growing use of weapons, and ultimately as a robbery escalated out of his control, he found himself in prison as a convicted murderer. In prison, he felt a compelling need to continue identifying with his more subversive peers for many years before he felt able to re-appraise his deeply held belief that all authority was duplicitous and to be rejected.

Read more about David and his peers in my publication, Forensic Case Histories.