Letter from Elsewhere: Death Of A Teenager
Death Of A Teenager
On 22 October nineteen years ago, my younger son Patrick died. He was eighteen, and he thought he was indestructible. But he made one mistake, and he fell to his death.
At the time, I drove myself to think about what could have made it even worse. He could have survived as nothing more than a body that breathed in and out, everything that made him Patrick stripped from him, and from us. He could have deliberately taken his own life. He could have simply disappeared. Or he could have been killed by another person.
Every time I hear of a sudden teenage death, I think of him and of what the parents are going through. This year, on Patrick’s anniversary, Manaola Kaumeafaiva was stabbed to death outside his school as he left a hip-hop dance competition. He was fourteen. He did not even know the sixteen year old boy who killed him. It seems to have been a completely random act, without any “provocation”. I really hate the police using that word, just as I hate them describing attacks as “cowardly”. Does that mean a non-cowardly attack (a really manly one) is okay – especially if it was “provoked”?
The police said they would “need to give the parents time to grieve” and would “in due course be speaking to them in some detail about their son and gain an insight as to the sort of kid he was". That seems oddly beside the point. How do they plan to gain an insight into what sort of kid it was who killed him?
They may already know something about this kid. It’s unlikely that he has had nothing to do with the police before. Patrick was picked up by them once, for stealing (or rather trying to steal) a copy of Playboy. I’m pretty sure he had shoplifted before, but hadn’t been caught. Getting caught at sixteen, and being told that if he got caught again after he turned seventeen he’d be prosecuted, was enough to stop him for good.
But he was one of the vast majority of all young people caught each year, the 80 percent who commit just the one official offence. A tiny 10 percent of the “juvenile males” carry out at least half of all the general crimes and 60-85 percent of the serious crimes committed by young people.
If that’s the case, surely it should be possible to identify them – not difficult, since presumably they quickly become “well known to the authorities” – and make a determined effort to stop them, before they kill someone?
So far are we as a society from being able to do anything like this that it was not even possible to find a bed in a youth justice facility for the boy arrested for the stabbing. He spent five nights in police cells, appearing at the Youth Court every day. In a bizarre echo of those endless phone calls where you are repeatedly told where you are in the queue to talk to a human being, we were informed that at his first appearance he was 10th on the waiting list for a bed, by the 26th of October he was eighth, and by the 27th (Friday) he was down to fifth. They did actually find him a bed that day. God knows what else, if anything, they’ll be able to do for him. Whatever it is, it’s too late.
We’ve had umpteen reports identifying the “risk factors” that are likely to turn children into criminals. Here’s the latest list: having few social ties; mixing with antisocial peers (some contradiction here?); having family problems, particularly poor parental monitoring of children and negative parent-child relationships (including, of course, abuse – where we’re close to leading the world); experiencing barriers to treatment, whether low motivation to change or practical problems (like not being able to find any treatment – or even a bed?); poor self-management and aggressiveness; performing and attending poorly at school, lacking positive involvement in and feelings about school (that could be a large group); lacking vocational skills and a job (when they’re old enough to leave school – but by then it’s usually too late); demonstrating anti-social attitudes that are supportive of crime, theft, drug taking, violence, truancy and unemployment (though that’s not yet a crime, is it); abusing drugs and alcohol (helped along by booze barons setting out to attract young drinkers); living in a neighbourhood that is poor, disorganised, with high rates of crime and violence, in overcrowded and/or frequently changing living conditions (otherwise known as poverty); and lacking cultural pride and positive cultural identity (not helped, perhaps, by being told you don’t exist).
No surprises there, then. But when the report (at Chapter 6) goes on to recommend “early intervention across risk factors as a key strategy”, it’s enough to make you weep.
I could be quite wrong. The boy who killed Manaola, then stabbed his friend, may have no connection with any of these “risk factors”, except maybe living in a poor, disorganised neighbourhood. We won’t know until he comes to trial. How many more teenagers will have died at the hands of other teenagers by then?
Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her
occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can
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