Thursday, 10 July 2014

Where the Police Fear to Tread: Two True Tales of Troublesome Teenage Boys

You may have read my recent blog about difficult situations with teenage girls while working out of hours. While I was having a look in the Masked AMHP’s vault, I came across a couple of incidents from the 1980’s which involved teenage boys, and a certain reluctance on the part of the police to intervene, which I thought I would share.


One evening I received a call from Charwood Police to attend as an Appropriate Adult under PACE (The Police & Criminal Evidence Act) while they interviewed a young boy who had been arrested for a distraction burglary.

Little was known about him, as he appeared unable or unwilling to provide much information. He was from a group of Irish travellers, who had settled on a piece of wasteland on the edge of Charwood. He had been arrested when he and an older boy had been reported for attempting to steal from a Charwood householder.

Distraction burglaries involve one of a pair engaging someone in their garden in conversation, while the other nips into their house and has a search for valuables. The older boy had made off, but the police had managed to catch Sean.

Sean was unclear about his surname, and appeared not to know his date of birth. All he knew was that he was 13 years old. This knowledge could have been influenced by knowing that he could not be remanded in custody if he was under 14.

I sat in on the interview, during which he admitted nothing, and appeared to know nothing. Having gone through the due process, the custody sergeant was keen to dispose of him.

This gave me a problem. As an Appropriate Adult, I had a responsibility for his welfare unless and until I could find an adult, preferably a parent, who could take on responsibility for him.

Sean was extremely vague about whether or not he had any relatives living in the UK. He said that his mother was in the Republic of Ireland, but was unclear as to the whereabouts of his father, or any other relatives. Unless I could find somebody, I would have to accommodate him in a local authority children’s home.

I discussed the problem with the custody sergeant.

“Do you think you could get an officer to pop over to the travellers’ site and see if there’s a relative there?” I asked hopefully.

The sergeant looked at me as if I had suggested that he take Sean home with him at the end of his shift.

“We’d be asking for trouble if a police car turned up there,” he said. “It’d be too dangerous. It’s strictly off limits.”

So what was I to do? I really did not want to place Sean in a children’s home if I could help it.

In the end, I decided I’d have to go there myself.

By now it was quite late in the evening. I cautiously entered the site in my car. The caravans all appeared to be in darkness. Although there were a number of vehicles on the site, there appeared to be no actual people. I wandered around somewhat apprehensively for a little while, then saw a face peering at me through a window in one of the caravans.

When the face saw that I had spotted them, it rapidly withdrew, but I went forward and knocked on the door.

After a pause, the door opened a little and a man looked suspiciously at me.

“I wonder if you can help me,” I began. “Do you happen to know a boy called Sean?”

“I’m not sure about that,” the man answered with a strong Irish accent.

“You see,” I continued. “I’ve got this problem. Sean’s down at the police station –“

“I don’t know anything about that,” the man interrupted.

“The police have finished interviewing him and he’s ready to be released. I’m a social worker, and unless I can find a relative, or at least a responsible adult who can take charge of him, I’ll have to put him into care in a children’s home.”

The man looked at me silently, considering what I had said.

At last, he said, “I’ll tell you what, you bring this young lad down here and I’ll see if I can find anyone who knows him and can take care of him.”

I went back to the police station, picked Sean up, and brought him back to the site.

The man opened the door of his caravan and examined the young boy for a moment.

“You come and get in here, son” he said to Sean at last.

“Yes, Dad,” Sean replied sheepishly, and slipped inside.

Sam and Stuart

It was late in the afternoon on an August Bank Holiday Monday when I received another call from Charwood Police. This time they had two 13 year olds who had been found by a passing police car hitchhiking down a quiet country lane. They said that they’d been threatened, and were in fear of their lives.

That August Bank Holiday weekend there had been a New Age Travellers Festival on a rural site a few miles outside Charwood. These two boys were there with the father of one of them.
New Age Travellers were particularly prevalent in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. They were mainly itinerant, travelling from one place to another fairly aimlessly in ramshackle convoys of old buses, ambulances, vans and other vehicles that had been converted into somewhat makeshift mobile homes, especially during the summer months, when they would move from one free festival or country fair to another.

They were essentially the tail end of the 1960’s/1970’s Hippy movement. Having had some pretensions to being a hippy in my teenage years, before getting a haircut and getting a job as a social worker, I had some sympathy for them.

But these boys were making allegations that could amount to child abuse. Their story was that they had been wrongly accused of a misdemeanour by some sort of ad hoc hippy parliament, and were escaping from some dreadful, but unspecified punishment.

Clearly, I was going to have to do some investigation and try to get to the bottom of it, otherwise I would have to place them in a children’s home, at least until the local social services office could sort something out the following day.

“Have you made any attempt to find the father?” I asked the duty sergeant.

“I expect he’ll be on the festival site,” the sergeant said.

“Yes, I know, but have you sent any officers out to try and find him, so we can find out what’s actually going on?” I had an inkling of the reply I would receive.

“I can’t send any of my officers out there,” he said. “Far too dangerous. Asking for trouble.”

So it looked like I would have to make my own investigations. Again.

I drove out to the site. By now the festival had finished, and many of the attendees had left, or were packing up.

There was nobody managing the entrance, so I drove over several fields that had been used for the festival until I reached a group of tents and vans. A few people were milling about, or just sitting round campfires, cooking or smoking.

I saw a man with long hair and a beard standing at the mouth of a yurt.

“Hello,” I said hopefully. I explained briefly who I was. “Do you know a couple of young lads called Sam and Stuart?”

“Yes I do,” he replied a little grimly. “Do you know where they’ve got to?”

I explained the situation to him.

“Come inside,” he said and ushered me into his yurt. It was quite a comfortable and surprisingly roomy space, with a potbellied wood burner in one corner, and a few beds which also stood in as seating. He said that he was Sam’s father, and Stuart was with them with the permission of his parents for the duration of the festival. Now the festival was over, they would be returning to another part of the country.

He told me to sit down, while he got the nominal leader of the group.

He came back with a pleasant looking middle aged woman. She explained that Sam and Stuart, far from being the innocents they were claiming to be, had actually been caught stealing minor items from others at the festival.

The habit of the group when a member had contravened one of their few rules (stealing was one of them), was to convene a meeting, confront the offender with their misdemeanour, and then suggest some sort of restitution. In the case of Sam and Stuart, their appointed job was to help to clean up the site. They had not wanted to do this, so had decided to run away.

There really did not appear to be any reason to put Sam and Stuart into care. The best solution was to return them to the traveller group, and they could then go on their way.

I took the father with me to the police station, where the boys looked rather forlorn, but not in any way fearful.

After getting some fish and chips from a local Chinese, which was open on the Bank Holiday, I took them all back to the camp and went on my way.

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